Texas Board of Education votes against teaching evolution weaknesses
11:08 PM CST on Thursday, January 22, 2009
By TERENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN " In a major defeat for social conservatives, a sharply divided State Board of Education voted Thursday to abandon a longtime state requirement that high school science teachers cover what some critics consider to be "weaknesses" in the theory of evolution.
Under the science curriculum standards recommended by a panel of science educators and tentatively adopted by the board, biology teachers and biology textbooks would no longer have to cover the "strengths and weaknesses" of Charles Darwin's theory that man evolved from lower forms of life.
Link: State Board of Education
Link: Texas Education Agency science curriculum
Darwin's theory has long been widely accepted in the scientific community, although proponents for a biblical explanation of the origin of humans continue pointing to what they say are flaws in evolution theory.
Those concerns caused the state board to adopt the so-called strengths and weaknesses requirement in the 1980s. Opponents of the requirement had warned that it would eventually open the door to the teaching of creationism in science classes. Board members who backed the rule insisted that was not their intention.
The seven Republican board members supporting the rule have been aligned with social conservative groups that in the past have worked to cast doubt on science-based theories on the origins of life.
The key vote Thursday was on an amendment to the proposed curriculum standards that would have restored the weaknesses rule. The amendment failed to pass on a 7-7 vote, with four Democrats and three Republicans voting no. Another Democrat " who would have opposed the amendment " was absent.
"We're not talking about faith. We're not talking about religion," said board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, who opposed the amendment. "We're talking about science. We need to stay with our experts and respect what they have requested us to do."
Rep. Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, who supported the weaknesses requirement, said there have been "significant challenges" to evolution theory. She cited a recent news article in which a European scientist disputed Darwin's "tree of life" showing common ancestors for all living things.
She also denied that some board members were trying to make it easier to teach creationism in science classes.
"I don't think this means you're supposed to teach creationism or intelligent design," she said, referring to another movement related to creationism.
Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, who also supported the requirement, cast the issue as a battle about "academic freedom" and "freedom of speech" over whether students can thoroughly examine evolution.
He accused supporters of evolution theory of using false evidence to back the theory.
"Those arguing against us have a bad history of lies," he said.
Board member Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, rejected the argument by social conservatives that teachers and students won't be able to question the theory of evolution under the new standards.
"There has never been anything in our standards that prevents a teacher from talking about all aspects of what they teach," she said.
"We need to respect what our teachers have recommended to us."
Dallas' two board members, Miller and Democrat Mavis Knight, supported the plan drafted by teachers. They were joined by Republican Pat Hardy of Fort Worth.
Evolution critics did score a minor victory, as the board agreed to an amendment that calls for students to discuss the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of Darwin's tenet that living things have a common ancestry.
That change was proposed by board chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station, who also supported the defeated strengths-and-weaknesses requirement.
The new curriculum standards, tentatively approved on a voice vote, spell out not only how evolution is to be covered, but also what is supposed to be taught in all science classes in elementary and secondary schools, as well as providing the material for state tests and textbooks.
The standards will remain in place for the next decade, although the process for approving new textbooks won't start until 2011.
The decision will reverberate beyond Texas. Because of the large number of students here, textbook makers tend to carry curriculum decisions made in Texas to other states.
With regard to evolution and other scientific theories, the educator panel advising the state board proposed language that stated students shall "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing."
In deleting the strengths-and-weaknesses rule, the panel said the requirement suggested that the scientific community was divided on the theory of evolution when in fact there is little disagreement.
The bloc of seven Republicans supporting the rule tried to add a similar amendment calling for science students to be taught evidence "supportive of and not supportive of" the theory of evolution and other scientific explanations. But it was rejected on an 8-7 vote.
A second vote on the science curriculum standards is scheduled for today.
Action on the science standards caps several months of debate by groups who sought to influence the board on the teaching of evolution. The issue last flared up when the board adopted new biology textbooks in 2003, as social conservatives sought to reject books that were deemed too pro-evolution.
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