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Florida Board of Education chairman takes beating over past comments on evolution

Andy Tuck voted with the Highlands School Board in 2008 to oppose the teaching of evolution as fact.
Highlands County citrus farmer Andy Tuck is named Florida Board of Education chairman at a meeting July 17, 2019, in Polk County. He has come under fire for anti-evolution comments he made more than a decade ago. [The Florida Channel]
Published Aug. 8
Updated Aug. 9

When Andy Tuck ascended to the chairmanship of Florida’s Board of Education in July, his board colleagues praised his dedication to public education — particularly his focus on the needs of rural students and schools.

They did not talk about his specific views on any of the many issues coming before the board, such as the ongoing review of academic standards. Nor did he.

It didn’t take long, though, for some activists with long memories to recall Tuck’s 2008 position, as a Highlands County School Board member, opposing a proposal to include teaching evolution as a fact in the state’s standards.

Highlands Today, a now-defunct newspaper, quoted Tuck as saying, "as a person of faith, I strongly oppose any study of evolution as fact at all. I’m purely in favor of it staying a theory and only a theory. ... I won’t support any evolution being taught as fact at all in any of our schools.”

He reiterated his doubts in 2014, when Florida Citizens for Science blogger Brandon Haught asked Tuck about the issue, after the Orlando Sentinel published a column wondering why Florida continued to debate the truth of evolution.

In the past week, those comments have resurfaced — with Haught’s help — and gone viral in certain internet circles.

The Friendly Atheist blog called Tuck an “evolution denier.”

The Progressive Secular Humanist blog deemed him an “anti-evolution Christian extremist.”

Creative Loafing, a Tampa alternative newspaper, said Florida has a long history of allowing the “dumbest people” to oversee its education system, calling Tuck’s appointment “one of the best examples yet.”

The Americans United for the Separation of Church and State’s Wall of Separation blog was a bit kinder, simply raising the question of how much influence Tuck might have in promoting an “anti-science, anti-fact” position.

“Of course, it’s perfectly within Tuck’s right to say whatever ludicrous thing pops into his head, including denying the scientific reality of evolution, but because his opinions might affect what public schoolchildren learn, we need to be concerned,” the AU blog post stated.

That statement is, in a nutshell, why Tuck’s decade-old vote and comment as a Highlands County School Board member have again become news.

Asked about the criticism, Tuck did not say whether his views had changed over the past 11 years. Rather, he spoke of the need for students to learn about sorting through information, so they can arrive at sound conclusions.

“It is critical that today’s students have a well-rounded education based on high quality standards in order to compete in our fast growing global economy," Tuck said via email. “I support standards that ensure students use critical thinking skills to explore multiple views of the world around them.”

Haught, a teacher who wrote a book on Florida’s evolution battles, said the idea of teaching “multiple views” in science classrooms is “problematic.”

“Can we interpret that to mean we should teach creationism, or intelligent design, or the alleged strengths/weaknesses of evolution, or whatever other nonscientific view someone holds when teaching evolution in the science classroom?” Haught said, via email. “I hope that’s not his position but I fear it is.”

Tuck took the State Board chairmanship — a position that can control the board’s agenda and serve as a bully pulpit — as the board stood poised to consider revisions to all K-12 academic standards. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order in January calling for the review, with results due to him by the start of 2020. The board could have proposals to debate and vote on by spring 2020.

The primary focus so far has appeared to be on eliminating the Common Core, which includes only math and language arts, and to enhance civics education.

But within the language arts recommendations that have emerged so far are proposals relating to science, such as, “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account.”

Plus, science falls under the governor’s broader call for a comprehensive review.

Beyond that, those same people with long memories also remember that the last time the State Board debated how to include evolution in the standards, in 2008, the concept won approval by a single vote on a sharply divided board.

It took the chairman, T. Willard Fair, to break the tie.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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