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Origin theories clash in Pinellas

Four School Board members would teach intelligent design alongside evolution.

By DONNA WINCHESTER and RON MATUS, Times Staff Writers
Published December 18, 2007


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A majority of Pinellas County School Board members think that if Florida children are taught evolution, they also should learn other theories on the origin of life.

Board members Jane Gallucci, Carol Cook, Peggy O'Shea and Nancy Bostock stopped short of saying that faith-based theories should be included in the state's proposed new science standards, which the Board of Education likely will vote on in February. They would include Darwin's theory of evolution but not faith-based theories such as intelligent design or creationism.

But in interviews, all four said such theories should be taught in public school classrooms.

"I think that students should be given the opportunity to view all theories on how man evolved and let their science background and their religious background take over as to which one they believe in," said Gallucci, also the immediate past president of the National School Boards Association.

"To teach one as if nothing else existed, I think we're doing our students a disservice," Cook said.

O'Shea worries that children who are taught creationism at home might be confused by evolution. And Bostock wonders if creationism could be taught without saying it's science.

Board members Janet Clark and Linda Lerner, however, said intelligent design has no place in a public school classroom. Board member Mary Brown declined to offer an opinion.

Across the bay, at least one Hillsborough School Board member would like to see the state continue its approach of teaching "change over time" rather than specifically mentioning evolution in the new standards. Jennifer Faliero, who represents conservative east Hillsborough, said she may discuss the issue with other board members.

As a practical matter, it makes no difference what school boards think unless the members are concerned enough to mount a state challenge, which does not appear likely in Pinellas.

But symbolically, their views speak volumes. That a majority of the school board in politically moderate, highly urbanized Pinellas County is having trouble embracing evolution mirrors the disconnect between the scientific community and the public at large - and hints at the dilemma that could face the state Board of Education.

A recent Harris poll found that 42 percent of those surveyed believe in Darwin's theory, which is the pillar of modern biology. A St. Petersburg Times poll taken two years ago when the issue of intelligent design raged nationally found that 58 percent of Pinellas parents who had been following the controversy believed intelligent design should be taught in classrooms.

For most scientists, there isn't a debate when it comes to evolution. But for much of the public, the cry to "teach both sides" has a ring of democratic fairness.

The position of Pinellas School Board members is "not welcome news," said Joe Wolf, president of Florida Citizens for Science, which supports the proposed standards. "I wouldn't expect the standards to be an issue in a place like Pinellas."

The current science standards, crafted in 1996, mention some of the underlying principles involved in Darwin's theory, such as "change over time." But state education officials purposely avoided the word "evolution" for fear of sparking the kind of emotional, religion vs. science debate that appears to be unfolding now.

At least one member of the state Board of Education has objected to the proposed standards. Donna Callaway told a religious newspaper in Jacksonville that evolution "should not be taught to the exclusion of other theories of the origins of life."

Additionally, Selena "Charlie" Carraway, program manager for the state Department of Education's Office of Instructional Materials, has urged fellow Christians to fight the inclusion of evolution in the science curriculum.

Rep. Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel Republican who has already lined up enough votes to become House speaker in 2011, has said he wasn't a "big fan" of the evolution-only approach in public schools, and the Polk County School Board has said it might allow its schools to teach alternatives to evolution.

The proposed standards refer to Darwin's theory as a "big idea" that Florida students must grasp to be well-grounded in science. Pinellas Board member Bostock doesn't have a problem with that, but she thinks intelligent design "can explain some of the gaps or holes in the theory of evolution."

"The entire theory of evolution is not scientific fact," Bostock said. "Intelligent design balances it out."

Board member O'Shea raised concerns about how the standards' treatment of evolution might conflict with children's religious beliefs.

"I would want to know to what age group are we teaching this," she said. "I think it would be very confusing to younger children. Would we be teaching it as a theory or as a fact?"

O'Shea said parents who object to evolution being taught to their children might be able to opt out of the lesson.

"I'd probably ideally like to keep it all out of the classroom," she said. "If it's going to create this much controversy, how important is it?"

For Clark and Lerner, there is no issue.

"Creationism is a philosophy. It should be taught in synagogues, in mosques and in churches," Lerner said. "Evolution should be taught in science class because it's based on scientific evidence."

To do otherwise would violate the separation of church and state, she said.

Clark, a former middle school science teacher, said the proposed standards are a "step into the 21st century." She pointed to a recent study that found American students lagging behind many of their international peers in science.

"Let's start teaching the Bible as science," Clark said, "and then see how our students compete against the rest of the world."

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

 

The theories

What is intelligent design?

The theory, espoused by English theologian William Paley, that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by a designing intelligence. The idea prevailed as an explanation of the natural world until the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859.

What is evolution?

The theory, formulated by English naturalist Charles Darwin, that various types of animals and plants have their origin in other pre-existing types and that the distinguishable differences are due to modifications in successive generations.

What do you think?

Leave your comments and read what others have to say about teaching evolution in Pinellas County schools at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

 

[Last modified December 17, 2007, 23:44:21]


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