Division opens over science standards

Emphasis on evolution decried.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published December 6, 2007

Let the culture war begin.

If anybody thought Florida's proposed new science standards would slip under the radar -- standards that embrace Darwin's theory of evolution -- that illusion was shattered over the weekend when a religious newspaper in Jacksonville published critical comments from a state Board of Education member.

Donna Callaway, a former middle school principal from Tallahassee, told the Florida Baptist Witness that evolution "should not be taught to the exclusion of other theories of origins of life."

She also said she hoped Christians would pray over the issue. "As a SBOE member, I want those prayers," Callaway said. "I want God to be part of this."

The state Department of Education unveiled a draft of the proposed standards in October, and quickly won accolades from scientists and teachers who found the current standards -- which don't mention the word "evolution" -- lacking.

But their position isn't going unchallenged. Callaway's comments were the latest and strongest signal that serious opposition is mounting.

Last week, the national, faith-based group Focus on the Family called on supporters to weigh in, as did the column in the Florida Baptist Witness, which is influential among Florida's 1-million Baptists. Meanwhile, both sides of the debate are peppering Board of Education members with e-mails and commenting by the thousands on a special DOE Web site.

"I haven't seen this level of passion" on any other education issue, said Akshay Desai, a Board of Education member from St. Petersburg.

Desai said he has received more than 100 e-mails in recent weeks, with the overwhelming majority pushing for inclusion of intelligent design. Desai, a medical doctor, said he believes in Darwin's theory. But he also said he would not close the door on mention of creationism or intelligent design in the standards.

"There is a significant passion about this issue from a religious perspective," he said. "That needs to be respected."

The strong feelings should come as no surprise. Schools and religion are a volatile mix. And when science is thrown in, stand back.

The St. Petersburg Times' education blog, the Gradebook, has drawn nearly 20,000 hits -- and more than 300 posted comments -- since it published Callaway's remarks Tuesday. It followed up Wednesday with related comments from state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

"I'm not a scientist, but I will tell you in general evolution is one of the theories," said Weatherford, who is likely to become House speaker in 2011. "To show it from just one perspective and say this is more important or more accurate than the rest, I'm not so sure I'm in favor of that."

Polls show the obvious: In a religious country like the United States, many people believe in creationism or intelligent design, faith-based theories that explain how the world and its inhabitants came to be.

A Harris poll released last week found 82 percent of American adults believe in God, 75 percent believe in Heaven and 62 percent believe in the devil. Only 42 percent believe in Darwin's theory, which is the pillar of modern biology.

Closer to home, a St. Petersburg Times poll two years ago -- taken when the issue of intelligent design was hot and heavy nationally -- found 58 percent of Pinellas County parents who had been following the controversy believed intelligent design should be taught in classrooms. Only 21 percent said it should not be.

But should the crafting of science standards -- which will guide what kids should learn to be well-grounded in science -- be driven by polls?

"There's where the public is, and then there's where the scientific community and the educational community is," said Josh Rosenau, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education. "You want your science education to be accurate."

If the Florida Board of Education buckles under pressure, it will be in rare company, Rosenau said. No state science standards have presented intelligent design as a scientifically credible alternative to evolution, and only one state -- South Carolina -- includes language that could open the door to such teaching.

Still, intelligent design supporters in Florida have plenty of friends in high places.

A few weeks ago, the Lakeland Ledger reported that a Polk County School Board member was opposed to the proposed science standards. When the paper polled the rest of the School Board, it found that a majority opposed the new standards.

Hillsborough School Board member Jennifer Faliero, who represents east Hillsborough, wants to see the state continue with its current approach, which is to teach "change over time" -- a nod to Darwin's theory that falls short of the "e word."

"I'm not advocating intelligent design," Faliero said. "What I do think is healthy is to not limit it to saying evolution only."

At this stage, it's unclear how the seven-member state Board of Education will vote early next year.

Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa and Linda Taylor of Fort Myers could not be reached for comments. Board chairman T. Willard Fair of Miami said he would not comment until the issue comes before the board. Phoebe Raulerson of Okeechobee said she is still reviewing the draft and has not made a decision.

Besides Callaway, only one other board member, Roberto Martinez of Miami, has offered a clear position. He's in favor.

"I respect the people who have beliefs in creationism and intelligent design, but I do not believe it should be included as part of the science standards," he said.

Those ideas can be addressed in other parts of the curriculum, such as social studies, he said.

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek, Donna Winchester and Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.


FAST FACTS: What they said

A sample of comments from the Times' education blog, The Gradebook: