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North Florida weighing in against evolution

Several school boards say they want to teach alternative theories.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 24, 2008


A growing number of North Florida superintendents and school boards are objecting to the state's proposed new science standards, saying the standards give too much credence to evolution and leave no room for alternative theories.

Evolution is "going to be taught as fact, and everyone knows it's not fact," said Dennis Bennett, the superintendent in Dixie County, west of Gainesville. "There's holes in it you can drive a truck through."

At least seven of Florida's 67 school boards - all north of Ocala - have passed opposition resolutions, according to the Florida Citizens for Science, a group that supports the standards and has been methodically searching board minutes.

That number could double by the time the state Board of Education votes on the standards Feb. 19, said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

"It just shows the nature of Florida," Blanton said.

Dominated by Baptist churches and dotted with military bases, most of North Florida makes no bones about its political and cultural conservatism. Throw an election year into the mix, Blanton said, and it's no surprise that school officials in places like Bonifay and Macclenny are "going to try to do some things their constituents want."

The current science standards, put in place in 1996, do not mention the word "evolution" and instead refer to "changes over time." The proposed standards say evolution is "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence." If the Board of Education approves, students will be tested on them next year.

The opposition resolutions have passed in five rural counties - Baker, Madison, Taylor, Jackson and Holmes - and in two suburban counties next to Jacksonville: Clay and St. John's.

The board in Nassau County, just north of Jacksonville, is slated to vote on a resolution today. And while the Dixie board did not pass a resolution, Bennett said all five members raised concerns at a recent meeting.

"We just wanted to get it on the record that we're a Judeo-Christian community, and we believe in academic freedom," Bennett said.

Most of the resolutions have nearly identical wording. Some object to the characterization of evolution as something other than a "theory." Others ask that alternative theories be included.

"I'm a Christian. And I believe I was created by God, and that I didn't come from an amoeba or a monkey," said Ken Hall, a School Board member in Madison County, east of Tallahassee.

The St. John's resolution says the standards should "allow for balanced, objective and intellectually open instruction" that doesn't treat evolution as "dogmatic fact."

"Anybody with half a brain can see that natural selection takes place," said Beverly Slough, a St. John's board member who is president-elect of the Florida School Boards Association. "But to make great leaps from a fish to a man ... the fossil record doesn't support all that."

Polls suggest the public is split on evolution, but in the scientific community there is virtually no debate on the fundamental soundness of Charles Darwin's theory. Scores of scientific societies and organizations have issued statements in support of evolution, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association.

Decades of legal precedent also suggest the Board of Education would face an uphill court battle if it were to include alternative theories.

It is unclear how the board will vote. But board chairman T. Willard Fair said the recent resolutions would be considered along with other information.

"I haven't the slightest idea what would sway us" until the board debate begins, said Fair, who was appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush and reappointed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

If the board votes yes, the repercussions in North Florida are also unclear. Some opponents say parents will pull their children from public schools.

Hall, the Madison board member, said his wife is threatening to do just that with their daughter, but he's not going to let that happen. It'll be his daughter's duty to learn the material, and "my duty to tell her I don't necessarily believe that," he said.

"I'm not buying (evolution)," Hall continued. "But I'm not boycotting it either."