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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

And the decision is ...



Evolution officially is a "scientific theory" in Florida's curriculum.

The State Board of Education narrowly adopted new science standards with the added language, with some members saying the decision will leave the idea open to questions by students, while others contended the wording is a clear attempt by creationists to water down science instruction.

The vote was 4-3, with Chairman T. Willard Fair and members Linda Taylor, Phoebe Raulerson and Kathleen Shanahan in support.

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

Members Roberto Martinez and Akshay Desai voted no because they backed the proposed standards as written, while Donna Callaway was opposed because she wanted the board to go even further toward "academic freedom."

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

What’s next is unclear.

Both sides have threatened lawsuits. And at least three lawmakers - Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park and Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville - have said they may file legislation if the board approves the proposed standards without significant changes.

Tuesday’s vote followed weeks of mounting drama. The proposed new 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. David C. Gibbs III, the lawyer who represented Terri Schiavo’s parents and siblings, also jumped into the fray, arguing that the state’s position on evolution was so dogmatic, it crossed the line between science and faith.

On the other side, scientists rallied. Among the organizations that signalled 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.

State education officials said their aim was to create world-class science standards.

The previous standards, written in 1996, didn’t mention the word "evolution" and were slammed by scientists as vague and shallow. Their reputation hit rock-bottom in 2005, when the Fordham Institute, a respected national think tank, gave them an F, in part for giving short shrift to evolution "in response to religious and political pressures."

"A number of states have resisted this madness in their science standards but too many are fudging or obfuscating the entire basis on which biology rests," said the report, which was chiefly authored by biologist Paul Gross, former head of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., and a former provost at the University of Virginia. (Gross told the St. Petersburg Times in November that the proposed new standards were "an excellent change.")

Also driving the state: The poor showing of Florida students on state and national science tests. An economy increasingly driven by high-tech, science-based industries. And the need for better, basic 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.

The Department of Education left the heavy lifting for writing the standards to a 68-member committee dominated by scientists and science teachers. The committee dubbed evolution one of a handful of "big ideas" that students must grasp to be well grounded in good science. And in the draft standards, it described evolution as "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology" and one "supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence."

In a letter to the board last week, 40 members of the committee wrote, "There is no longer any valid scientific criticism of the theory of evolution."

Conservative Christians have led the opposition. But they have public opinion on their side. 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.

In a last-ditch attempt at compromise, Department of Education officials floated a proposed wording change Friday, offering to include the words "scientific theory" wherever appropriate in the standards, including in the evolution language. But representatives of both sides stuck to their guns.

- Ron Matus, state education reporter

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:34am]


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