Evolution joins curriculum

With a 4-3 vote, a state standards board agrees to include the "scientific theory."

By Ron Matus, Times Staff Writer
Published February 20, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Science won Tuesday. But not by knockout.

Over the objections of religious conservatives, a sharply divided Florida Board of Education adopted new science standards Tuesday that embrace evolution.

But, in an attempt at political compromise, the board majority also agreed to reword the standards to refer to evolution as a "scientific theory" - a technically accurate description that defused several key opponents but left scientists grumpy about the process.

"Do I believe the theory of evolution? Absolutely," said board member Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa, who was on the winning end of a rare 4-3 vote. "But I believe there's more to explore."

The wording change leaves the door open for that, she said.

Board members Phoebe Raulerson, Linda Taylor and Shanahan voted in favor.

Board members Donna Callaway, Roberto Martinez and Akshay Desai voted against.

Board Chairman T. Willard Fair broke the tie.

Department of Education officials floated the last-minute revision Friday in the face of mounting opposition from religious conservatives who said the proposed standards were too dogmatic in their treatment of evolution.

The draft standards defined evolution as "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology" and one "supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence."

A committee dominated by scientists and science teachers crafted the language, and many of them were unhappy with the board's decision to alter their wording. But many were also willing to look on the bright side.

"It's okay," said University of South Florida chemistry professor Robert Meisels. "They basically superimposed themselves on the experts, but that's part of the political process."

The bottom line, Meisels and other supporters said, is Florida students "will get a better science education."

The debate over evolution spans the globe and goes back decades, but Tuesday was Florida's turn in the spotlight. The meeting inside the state Capitol drew 150 people, a dozen TV cameras and enough reporters for the Department of Education to take the rare step of reserving media seats.

Whether the fight here will continue with the same intensity is unclear. But it's fair to say opponents left divided.

Both sides had threatened lawsuits, and at least three lawmakers - Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville - had said they might seek a legislative remedy, depending on the board's decision.

After Tuesday's vote, two of the three said they were satisfied, as did Dennis Baxley, a former state representative from Ocala who now heads the Christian Coalition of Florida.

"I'm very pleased with their decision," Coley said. "It helps us reach a balance."

"I think what the board did reflects a thoughtful approach," Cannon said. "I don't think any legislation would follow up on that."

Tuesday's vote followed weeks of mounting drama.

The proposed standards were unveiled in October. But it wasn't until late November, when the Florida Baptist Witness published comments from board member Donna Callaway, that the debate began in earnest. Callaway told the Jacksonville-based newspaper that she could not vote in favor of the proposed standards because evolution "should not be taught to the exclusion of other theories of origin of life."

From that point on, tension escalated.

More than a dozen North Florida school boards filed resolutions in opposition, with some saying they wanted evolution taught as a "theory" and others saying they wanted inclusion of faith-based theories such as creationism or intelligent design.

On the other side, scientists rallied. Among the organizations that signaled support: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the Florida Academy of Sciences and the Florida Citizens for Science.

Board member Roberto Martinez repeatedly cited scientific support in arguing the draft standards should be adopted without revision.

"We're watering down the best possible standards we could have to appease a certain segment of the community," he said. "Why should we ... supplant our own opinions for those of the scientific community?"

Callaway countered that the standards should acknowledge that there is a debate about evolution - and give teachers and students the academic freedom to pursue alternative theories.

"If we decide we're going to hide this debate, and we're going to hide the controversy ... then we better get with the witness protection program because that's the only place where we can act like it never happened," she said.

Callaway voted no because the revision did not go far enough. Members Martinez and Desai voted no because they backed the standards as written.

Department of Education officials said their aim was to make the new science standards world-class.

The previous standards, written in 1996, didn't mention the word "evolution" and were slammed by scientists as vague and shallow. In 2005, a respected think tank gave them an F, in part for "fudging or obfuscating the entire basis on which biology rests."

Other factors were also at play: The poor showing of Florida students on state and national science tests. An economy increasingly driven by high-tech industries. And the need for better science literacy in a state where pressing issues - from hurricanes to global warming to wetlands destruction - require an understanding of natural systems and how they work.

Districts will begin aligning their curriculum to the new standards next school year, and the science FCAT will begin testing students on the new standards in 2012.

Conservative Christians have led the opposition in recent months, but they're hardly alone.

A St. Petersburg Times poll released last week found 22 percent of registered voters statewide wanted public schools to teach only evolution, while 50 percent wanted only creationism or intelligent design to be taught.

Against that backdrop, some opponents said they would fight on.

The board's decision "will do absolutely nothing to inform students about the flaws with evolution," said John Stemberger, executive director of the Florida Family Policy Council, which supports Biblical values. "It's a meaningless, symbolic change."

"I'm kind of disappointed," said Sen. Wise. But as for legislative action, he said, "We'll just have to see how it shakes out."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

T. Willard Fair, chairman

The standards "will serve the purpose of preparing our kids for the larger world, no more, no less."

Linda Taylor

"I think as a board we take the experts' recommendation and then we look at it to make public policy that is workable in the classroom."

Kathleen Shanahan

"Do I believe in the theory of evolution? Absolutely. But I also believe there's more to explore."

Phoebe Raulerson

"I'm not saying it's a fact or not a fact. I'm saying it's open to discovery."

Dr. Akshay Desai

"I would support the standards the way the framers" have written them.

Roberto Martinez

"We're watering down the best possible standards we could have to appease a certain segment of society."

Donna Callaway

"I'm advocating that evolution be taught (with) academic freedom."