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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Maybe Darwin's not such a bugaboo after all



More than 120 people gathered at a public hearing in Jacksonville tonight to weigh in on the state's proposed new science standards, which embrace Darwin's theory of evolution as the pillar of modern biology. And though Darwin's doubters were there in good numbers, they appeared to be far outnumbered by his defenders.

Intelligent design and other faith-based theories are "philosophical arguments, not scientific theories," said Julie Pipho, a retired teacher from Clay County. To incorporate them into science standards "does a disservice to our students."

Science is "not a belief system or a religion," said Wesley Johnson, a bioengineer and former faculty member at the University of South Florida. "Without it, there is only assertion and guesswork."

A committee of teachers, scientists and others worked for months to update the current standards, which were written in 1996 and do not mention the word "evolution." Its revamp has won solid reviews from teachers and scientists. But some conservative Christians object, saying the standards should also include faith-based theories such as creationism or intelligent design, and/or air what they insist are evolution's flaws, faults and weaknesses.

"In my life time, I've never seen an ape turned into a human. I've never seen us come from slime," said Ruth Klingman, who identified herself on the sign-in sheet as a former educator.

"I don't think evolution should be taught in school as dogmatic fact," agreed Gary Tupper. "I wish people had priorities like putting Christ first."

Between now and the BOE vote, there will be one last public hearing, in Broward County, on Jan. 8. And beginning on Jan. 9, the 56-member committee that crafted the standards will meet for three days to consider and make revisions. Department of Education staffers are not directly involved in the process.

Where all this goes is still anybody's guess. Some observers suspect the Legislature may enter the fray. Some can smell a lawsuit.

Religious critics have raised faith-based objection to Darwin's theory for decades, only to be dismissed by scientists as off-base and declared unconstitutional in federal courts. In the most recent case to gain national attention, a U.S. district judge in Pennsylvania ruled in December 2005 that teaching intelligent design in a public school science class violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Darwin's theory may not be perfect, Judge John E. Jones III ruled, but that "should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."

In Florida, both sides have mentioned the possibility of legal action. In a letter to the BOE last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida noted that federal courts have repeatedly struck down efforts to inject faith into science classes. Doing so in Florida would be risky and costly, it warned. "This is not like a really squishy area of the law," ACLU attorney Becky Steele told The Gradebook this morning. "These battles have been fought a long time ago."

But Pinellas County attorney David Gibbs III, who represented the Schindler family in the Terri Schiavo case, argued otherwise in a letter he sent to the board. He suggested the board might violate the constitution's establishment clause if it did not include alternative theories. "The terms being used in the proposed standards seem to imply a shift in classroom worldview away from the neutrality of a scientific perspective toward a 'thumb on the scale' for one particular worldview or belief system," he wrote.

Steele called that argument "absurd." Gibbs did not immediately return a phone call from The Gradebook.

Read more in Friday's St. Petersburg Times. Click here for the Associated Press report on the hearing.

- Ron Matus, state education reporter

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:31am]


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