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Fla. board approves evolution compromise

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP)–Rejecting advice from both sides in the evolution debate, the Florida Board of Education voted 4-3 Feb. 19 to add “scientific theory of” before each reference to “evolution” in new science standards for public schools in the Sunshine State.

The vote to approve compromise language suggested by Florida Department of Education Commissioner Eric Smith ends for now a debate that has engulfed the state since October 2007 when the first draft of the 10-year document was proposed. But opponents say they now will turn to the Florida legislature to seek support for a fix to what they believe is a dogmatic approach to evolution.

Led by Kim Kendall, a stay-at-home mom and member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Southern Baptists in Florida played prominent roles in opposing the standards’ treatment of evolution. Southern Baptists were among at least five of the 10 presenters who spoke in opposition to the standards, supporting a proposal to add explicit language protecting students’ and teachers’ academic freedom to explore scientific critiques of evolution.

Donna Callaway, a member of the board of education, was another Florida Baptist who played a leading part in the debate. Callaway, a retired educator and member of First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, unsuccessfully argued for the inclusion of academic freedom language offered by Kendall and her cohorts. Before considering the proposed standards, three members of the Florida legislature spoke to the board, and 10 advocates from each side in the debate were allotted three minutes each to offer their views.

Two Florida legislators supported the standards as written — Rep. Dan Gelber, a Democrat and minority leader of the House of Representatives, and Rep. Ed Homan, a Republican — while Republican Rep. Marti Coley supported the addition of “theory” as a way to fix the dogmatic approach to evolution.

“We are not asking for you to give watered-down information to our students. We are simply asking the word ‘theory’ be used,” Coley told the board.

Board members Linda Taylor, Kathleen Shanahan and Phoebe Raulerson approved the new standards with the “theory” language. Roberto Martinez, Akshay Desai and Callaway opposed the change. Chairman T. Willard Fair broke the tie, supporting the commissioner’s compromise proposal.

Martinez and Callaway were among the most vocal members of the board and while both opposed the compromise version of the standards, they did so for opposite reasons. Martinez said that it was wrong for the board to approve language that was clearly opposed by the scientific experts, while Callaway said the compromise did not go far enough to protect academic freedom of teachers and students to explore scientific criticisms of Darwinian evolution.

In an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness following the vote, Callaway said she was disappointed by the board’s action.

“I’m not happy with the outcome,” she said. “But I’m a good team player. I can live with this.”

Nevertheless, Callaway said the absence of explicit academic freedom protections for teachers will mean the scientific debate about Darwinian evolution –- a debate the board itself participated in –- may be hidden from some students.

Regarding claims by several board members that the “Nature of Science” section of the standards already provides the opportunity for scientific criticisms of evolution to be considered, Callaway said “good teachers” will do that.

She encouraged teachers to know the standards well and for parent organizations to work to ensure students will be exposed to all sides of the debate about evolution.

Kendall told the Witness a legislative remedy will be sought to explicitly provide academic freedom for teachers, noting that none of the teachers, superintendents and school boards she consulted had confidence the “Nature of Science” section of the standards would provide adequate academic freedom.
The former air traffic controller said she did not regret all the time she invested in the effort that has thus far failed. Her two children have encouraged her efforts, telling her, “Go mom!”

“My kids are going to be in school for the next eight and nine years. Nothing’s more important to me than their classroom environment” where they need to hear all sides of the evolution debate.

“I don’t want to give up the fight yet,” Kendall said, saying she will be talking with her legislators about the matter.

John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Policy Council, said the compromise language was merely “an attempt to placate the public, but does not address the real issue of academic freedom.” He said his group will now turn to the legislature to address the issue.

The academic freedom proposal offered by Kendall and supported by the coalition she represented sought to amend wording in the diversity and evolution of living organisms section of the standards by changing “the” to “a” in its assertion that evolution is “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence,” and by adding the clause, “and teachers should be permitted to engage students in a critical analysis of that evidence.”

The board of education, however, never formally considered the academic freedom proposal, although Callaway did urge the board to adopt it.

Instead, the board approved the compromise suggested by the commissioner in spite of the opposition of 29 members of the committee that wrote the standards, as well as the opposition of pro-evolution advocates, including Florida Citizens for Science.

The new science standards were proposed after the current standards were given an “F” grade by the Fordham Institute on three occasions, in part for its failure to use the word “evolution” in favor of “changes over time.”

The board of education’s action was contrary to the position expressed by John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, in a Feb. 17 letter requesting the board to oppose the “theory” compromise in light of the standards’ “silence about teaching scientific criticisms of evolution.”

Sullivan also urged both strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution be taught and said the standards should “honor and encourage the academic freedom of teachers and students on an issue of fundamental importance and ongoing scientific controversy.”
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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