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‘Balanced education’ in science: Atlanta-area school board holds firm

MARIETTA, Ga. (BP)–The Atlanta-area Cobb County school board adopted a policy for “balanced education” addressing “disputed views of academic subjects” Sept. 26, in an action that refused to buckle to pro-Darwinian scientists and the American Civil Liberties Union.

School board chairman Curt Johnson, in a prepared statement he read at the meeting, said, “… we are not willing to cater to any particular viewpoint where genuine doubt exists, be it scientific or religious. We expect our science instruction to be broad-based, factual and respectful of all views.”

The two-paragraph science curriculum policy adopted Sept. 26 states:

“It is the educational philosophy of the Cobb County School District to provide a broad-based curriculum; therefore, the Cobb County School District believes that discussion of disputed views of academic subjects is a necessary element of providing a balanced education, including the study of the origin of the species. This subject remains an area of intense interest, research, and discussion among scholars. As a result, the study of this subject shall be handled in accordance with this policy and with objectivity and good judgment on the part of teachers, taking into account the age and maturity level of their students.

“The purpose of this policy is to foster critical thinking among students, to allow academic freedom consistent with legal requirements, to promote tolerance and acceptance of diversity of opinion, and to ensure a posture of neutrality toward religion. It is the intent of the Cobb County Board of Education that this policy not be interpreted to restrict the teaching of evolution; to promote or require the teaching of creationism; or to discriminate for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, religion in general, or non-religion.”

The board had come under pressure from the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts, who had written to academy members in Georgia urging them to draft opinion pieces for local newspapers and send e-mails or letters to the Cobb County school board in opposition to the deliberations involving the science curriculum.

Alberts described the deliberations as an effort to introduce “intelligent design” into the curriculum.

Intelligent design, according to its proponents, many of whom hold Ph.D. degrees from leading universities across the country, utilizes science itself in reasoning that living matter is too complex to have resulted from random chance, thus some entity must have purposefully created it.

Alberts, however, described intelligent design as “a recent permutation of ‘creation science.'”

Alberts’ letter was subsequently countered by a group of 28 scientists from the University of Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University and other institutions in the state who sent a letter to the school board appealing for academic freedom to teach scientific controversy over Darwinian evolution.

The Georgia scientists, joining 130-plus other scientists nationwide, signed a statement that originated last fall called, “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.” The statement urged “careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory” in the classroom, while also expressing skepticism toward the Darwinian claim that “random mutation and natural selection account for the complexity of life.”

The ACLU, meanwhile, is waging a lawsuit against the Cobb County school board over disclaimers placed inside biology textbooks in March stating that “evolution is a theory, and not a fact” and that the text should be carefully studied by students “with an open mind.”

An attorney who helped file the ACLU suit, Michael Maneley, told the Marietta Daily Journal after the meeting that the policy, fine-tuned from an earlier version, is “a 100 percent improvement.” He told the newspaper the language might be sufficient to dispel fears about the teaching of religion in the classroom.

The ACLU will decide on whether to expand its litigation after seeing guidelines developed by Cobb County school administrators for implementing the policy, Maneley told the Daily Journal.

A parent whose name is on the lawsuit, Jeffrey Selman, however, “I’ll see you in court” after the board’s unanimous vote in a meeting room packed with parents, with scores of others listening from outside the room.

Johnston, in his prepared statement, noted that the new policy was needed because the earlier policy “could be read to restrict the teaching of evolution or to require teaching creationism.”

That policy had stated:

“The Cobb County School District acknowledges that some scientific accounts of the origin of human species as taught in public schools are inconsistent with the family teachings of a significant number of Cobb County citizens. Therefore, the instructional program and curriculum of the school system shall be planned and organized with respect for those family teachings. The Constitutional principle of separation of church and state shall be preserved and maintained as established by the United States Supreme Court and defined by judicial decisions.”

Johnston noted, “Although individual board members, or different families, may have differing views concerning the teaching of evolution, the new policy requires that we acknowledge a diversity of opinion without watering down discussion of factual evidence supporting different scientific theories.”

The board decision was praised by Bruce Chapman, president of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a nonprofit think tank whose fellows include scientists and mathematicians who are intelligent design proponents.

Chapman called the decision “a victory for academic freedom and good science education” and faulted critics of the policy for “trying to mischaracterize the controversy as a battle over religion.”

Chapman commended the board for choosing “the sensible middle path” in the Darwinian controversy in adopting a policy that is “clearly about science, not religion.”

“The board declined to promote either the Bible or the dogmatic presentation of Darwinism in science class. Instead, it encouraged allowing students to study the diversity of scientific views on the origin of new life forms,” Chapman said.

“The charge that this is about religion is nothing but a smokescreen to shut down free inquiry,” he said. “There are growing numbers of scientists who believe that it’s time for students to study evolution like they would any other controversial topic in science — by learning about scientific evidence both for and against the theory. Why should evolution be the only controversial topic immune from critical examination in the classroom?”

Chapman added that the new policy follows the lead of Congress, which in the conference report on the landmark No Child Left Behind Act, urged the nation’s schools to “help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist” on controversial topics like “biological evolution” and to know “why such topics may generate controversy.”

Chapman called on the ACLU to end its efforts to intimidate the Cobb County School District. Referencing the ACLU suit over the biology textbook disclaimers that urge students to approach evolution “with an open mind,” Chapman declared, “Imagine being opposed to studying evolution ‘with an open mind’! It’s truly bizarre that the ACLU — which claims to defend the rights of students to study different viewpoints — would go to court in order to censor an open discussion of the scientific evidence for Darwin’s theory. The ACLU treats Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ with the same unquestioning reverence that some people reserve for a sacred text.”