The perpetually contentious debate over evolution in the nation’s schools is growing louder in two big states, each of which exerts enormous influence over the multibillion-dollar textbook industry and ultimately, therefore, over curricula and science instruction from coast to coast.

In Texas, biology professors have rallied in support of a state official who says she was forced to resign because she sent an eMail message promoting a lecture that was critical of intelligent design. The controversy comes as science standards in Texas are due for a 10-year review in 2008.

And in Florida, state officials are poised to adopt new science standards that would use the term “evolution” for the first time—although the new draft standards have drawn a flood of public comments, many of which are critical of the proposed changes.

How these debates play out in such key battleground states has huge implications for the nation’s students, at a time when many believe science teaching in the United States is facing something of a crisis.

U.S. students were outperformed, on average, by 16 other industrialized countries in science on a recent international exam, sparking new calls to improve math and science instruction to keep the nation competitive in the global economy.

It’s widely accepted within the scientific community that evolution is the foundation for all biological studies. And that was the gist of a letter stressing the importance of teaching students about evolution, sent by biology professors from across Texas to Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott on Dec. 10.

“It is inappropriate to expect the [Texas Education Agency’s] director of science curriculum to ‘remain neutral’ on this subject, any more than astronomy teachers should ‘remain neutral’ about whether the Earth goes around the sun,” the letter stated.

“Far from remaining neutral, it is the clear duty of the science staff at TEA and all other Texas educators to speak out unequivocally: evolution is a central pillar in any modern science education, while ‘intelligent design’ is a religious idea that deserves no place in the science classroom at all.”

More than 100 faculty members from the universities of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas State, North Texas, Houston, Rice, and Baylor signed the letter.

“I’m an evolutionary biologist, and I and many others simply feel that good evolution education is key to understanding biology as a whole,” said Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas (UT), who started collecting signatures last week.

The professors sent the letter in response to the departure of long-time education veteran Chris Comer, who said evolution politics were behind her forced resignation last month as the state’s director of science curriculum.

Comer said she came under pressure after forwarding an eMail message that her superiors felt made the agency appear to be biased against the instruction of intelligent design. Intelligent design holds that the universe’s order and complexity is so great that science alone cannot explain it.

UT integrative biology professor David Hillis said Comer’s ouster shows the country is slipping into “scientific illiteracy.”

“It is extraordinarily unfortunate and inappropriate that religious views are dictating hiring and firing decisions at the Texas Education Agency,” he said. “This is an enormous black eye in terms of our competitiveness and ability to attract researchers and technologies.”

Texas education officials say Comer’s resignation came after repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. Scott and other officials declined to comment specifically, because they reportedly feared being sued.

“I am really frustrated with the issue, knowing the truth and not being able to talk about it,” Scott said.

According to TEA documents, Comer’s superiors recommended she be terminated because of comments she made about the agency’s leadership and her failure to get approval for making presentations outside the agency.

The documents show that Lizzette Reynolds, the agency’s senior adviser on statewide initiatives, notified Comer’s superiors after Comer forwarded an eMail message announcing a presentation by an author who argues that creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools.

“This is something that the State Board, the Governor’s Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports,” Reynolds said in her eMail to Comer’s supervisors.

Comer said her only recent reprimand was in February, after she attended a meeting of science educators without getting prior approval.

“Did I question them when they said things that I thought were wrong? Yes, I did that,” Comer said Dec. 10. “I did speak up for myself. I was not a shrinking violet. But then, as the director of science, I thought it was important [for them] to hear my expert opinions of what is going on.”

Next year, the Texas Board of Education begins a review of the state’s science curriculum, which will set standards for classroom instruction and textbook selection. The board’s chairman, Don McLeroy, has lectured favorably in the past about intelligent design, according to the New York Times.

Sunshine State standards

In Florida, the state’s public school students for years have been studying “biological changes over time,” a phrase widely considered a euphemism for “evolution,” but proposed revisions in state science standards for the first time would use the actual word “evolution” for the same concept.

The new standards also would require more in-depth teaching of evolution and other topics while setting specific benchmarks for students to meet.

The pending changes have drawn a flood of public comments, both pro and con, that reflect how sharply divided the nation’s citizens are over how evolution should be taught. A Gallup poll released last June said the country is about evenly split over whether the theory of evolution is even true.

Some people say they oppose the teaching of evolution or want schools to teach religious ideas of creationism or intelligent design to explain the origins of life as well.

Other objectors, such as St. Augustine, Fla., parent and education activist Kim Kendall, deny a religious motive but say they just want teachers to offer evidence that contradicts as well as supports evolution.

Kendall is organizing opposition to Florida’s new science standards, which were developed by two committees of scientists, educators, and other citizens. One panel framed the standards, and the other wrote them.

“They’re being very dogmatic,” Kendall said. “[Schools] do need to continue to teach evolution, but they need to allow the teachers to teach both the faults and the supports of evolution.”

Scientists and many educators say the evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming, and it does not conflict with religious beliefs.

“We’re looking at a scientific theory as opposed to a belief system,” said Rick Ellenburg, Florida’s 2008 teacher of the year. “I’m a religious person, and I don’t see a conflict in my life. Within the realm of what I teach, it’s pretty much a non-issue.”

Ellenburg, who is Presbyterian, teaches science at Camelot Elementary School in Orlando and served on the committee that wrote the new standards.

Arguments for inserting skepticism, rather than religious concepts, into evolution lessons emerged after a federal court ruling nearly two years ago struck down the teaching of intelligent design in Dover, Pa., biology classes, said Michael Ruse, director of Florida State University’s program on the history and philosophy of science.

“This is strategy No. 4,” said Ruse. He says it’s a wedge issue seen as a step toward introducing religious ideas in public schools.

The first strategy for evolution opponents was to prohibit teaching it. In the 1925 so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, a teacher was convicted of violating Tennessee’s evolution ban, although the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Courts, though, later ruled evolution could be taught.

The next strategy was to get the biblical account of creation taught as well, but courts rejected that, too, in the 1980s, Ruse said. Then the focus shifted to intelligent design.

That strategy also hit a legal roadblock when the Dover judge ruled intelligent design was religion masquerading as science, and teaching it in the public schools violated the separation of church and state.

Since then, evolution opponents have had other setbacks, including a decision by Ohio’s school board to eliminate a passage in its science standards that critics said opened the door to teaching intelligent design.

The Kansas state board last February repealed guidelines questioning evolution, the fifth time in eight years its standards have changed as religious conservatives and a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans have traded power.

A suburban Atlanta school board also abandoned its effort to put stickers in high school science books saying evolution is “a theory, not a fact,” and South Carolina’s Board of Education rejected a proposal to require students to “critically analyze” evolution.

The Georgia and South Carolina cases are examples of the fourth strategy, according to Ruse, who described it as presenting evolution as an “iffy hypothesis” instead of what it really is—a scientific theory “that’s accepted like the Earth goes around the sun.”

In Florida, old and new arguments alike are being made on a state education department web site, at public hearings, and in letters, phone calls, and eMail messages to members of the state board of education.

The board was expected to vote on the standards in January, but the decision likely will be put off until February to accommodate two more public hearings, one scheduled for Jan. 3 in Jacksonville and another for Jan. 8 in Fort Lauderdale.

Board Chairman T. Willard Fair, who heads the Urban League of Greater Miami, said he had never received more correspondence on a single issue, but he declined to discuss his views.

“I’m keeping a fairly open mind,” said board member Donna Callaway, a retired Tallahassee middle school principal. She has a Southern Baptist background and her correspondence has been overwhelming against the evolution standards, but Callaway said she believed it should be taught in some manner.

Some Southern Baptist ministers have expressed opposition, but spokeswoman Lauren Urtel said the Florida Baptist Convention had taken no position and had no comment.

Board member Phoebe Raulerson, a former Okeechobee County school superintendent, said she couldn’t comment because she hadn’t yet examined the proposal and public comments.

At least one board member, though, strongly supports the standards.

“Evolution is well accepted in the scientific community as a fact,” said Roberto Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer. “This is not a discussion on religion.”

The other three board members did not return telephone messages left at their homes or offices or were unable to schedule interviews in time for this story.

Education Commissioner Eric Smith said it would be inappropriate for him to comment until the standards are finalized.

Many supporters say the standards are compatible with their religious beliefs, including Joe Wolf, a Presbyterian deacon from Winter Haven who also serves as president of Florida Citizens for Science.

“What we really support is the teaching of strong science,” Wolf said. “Part of that has to be the teaching of evolution. Evolution is the foundation of biology.”

The standards are being updated on a 10-year cycle that in the future will go to six years, but advocates say changes also are desperately needed to improve Florida’s poor performance in science and prepare students to compete on a global level.

The Fordham Institute in 2005 gave the current standards an F, saying they are “sorely lacking in content.” Florida students also score below the national average on college entrance tests, and the gap has widened in recent years.

The present standards have been criticized for being “a mile wide and an inch deep,” covering too many topics for students to fully understand them, education officials say. The new ones would be narrower but deeper.

The writing committee might make changes after reviewing public comments. Dec. 14 is the deadline for submissions to the web site.

There was little dissent on evolution in the committees except for framer Fred Cutting, an aerospace engineer from Clearwater.

“Students should learn why some scientists give scientific critiques of standard models of neo-Darwinian evolution,” he wrote in a letter to both committees.

Cutting has attended intelligent design meetings but said he’s “not coming at this from a religious point of view.”

The new Florida standards are based on those in other states and nations considered leaders in teaching science.

“We’re not talking about crazy, wacky stuff,” said Sherry Southerland, associate professor of science education at Florida State University. “This is the fundamental science the rest of the world learns.”

The science standards review web site keeps the identity of people making comments secret so they will not feel intimidated, said Mary Jane Tappen, the state education department’s math and science director.

Few seem to have held anything back. A couple of opponents characterized the standards as “communistic” or the work of “liberal wackos.” One supporter, though, urged that the state not “bow to the demands of these religious fanatics.” Some suggested evolution be taught but continue to be called something else to avoid controversy.

Southerland, who served on the framing and writing committees, was dismayed evolution has overshadowed other parts of the standards she says are more important, but Tappen said the debate had been positive.

“It’s a good thing that so many people are concerned about science,” Tappen said. “At least we have their interest—and they know we have new standards.”

Links:

Texas Education Agency

Texas Board of Education

Open Letter to Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott

Florida Department of Education

Public Review and Comments on Proposed Revisions to Science Sunshine State Standards

Florida Citizens for Science