Column: SBOE again takes aim at evolution

The State Board of Education’s war on evolution in Texas public schools is in the news again. Now theĀ Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and other newspaper around the state are publishing this new column from Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller. Here is the full version:

One of the constants in Texas politics is a State Board of Education that generates controversy at virtually every turn. Now one of the board’s long-running and most embarrassing fights – what schools should teach about evolution – is making an unwelcome return.

Board members are already struggling with the proposed adoption of a deeply offensive and error-riddled Mexican-American studies textbook. And for months they have been arguing over the revision of language arts curriculum standards, a dispute that includes a silly conspiracy theory about bad people trying to sneak Common Core into Texas schools.

Then, as if those controversies weren’t enough, several state board members launched a fresh assault on evolution last week.

Fights over the teaching of evolution heated up in the 1990s, when creationists launched a long campaign to take control of the state board. In 2009, they succeeded in adding to the state’s curriculum standards for science a number of requirements designed to undermine evolution in textbooks and classroom instruction.

At the same time, board members made those standards so detailed and unwieldy that teachers have voiced frustration with how to cover them all. The board did the same thing to the social studies standards in 2010.

Late last year the board agreed to simplify, or “streamline,” the standards. In July, panels of educators and scholars met in Austin to begin that process for science.

The panel for biology hasn’t finished its work, but creationists are already upset. That’s because a panel majority decided that one good way to streamline the standards is to eliminate anti-evolution nonsense that biologists and other experts have made clear is based on junk science.

But this month one of the panelists, Ray Bohlin, complained to state board members in Austin. Bohlin is an associate of two prominent anti-evolution organizations, the Discovery Institute in Seattle and Probe Ministries in Plano. He charged that educators on his panel had engaged in a “quick and concerted” effort to eliminate any standards that challenge evolution.

Several state board members joined Bohlin in criticizing the panel. They even complained that the changes would somehow limit the ability of students to ask questions in their science classes. That’s absurd.

It was disturbing to hear such attacks on the professionalism of the educators and scholars who volunteered to serve as panelists. Even more appalling is that one of the panel’s critics, state board member Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, had earlier tried to stack the deck against evolution on that same panel.

Emails obtained by the Texas Freedom Network through a public information request show that Cargill in July pressured Texas Education Agency staff into adding another prominent evolution denier to the biology panel. TEA’s professional staff respectfully pointed out that the person Cargill wanted was unqualified, but he ended up with a spot on the panel anyway.

It now appears that the two evolution deniers failed to persuade their panel colleagues to keep the junk science in the standards. So one is criticizing the science teachers and other experts on the panel for – shocking! – supposedly plotting to defend the teaching of evolution in the second decade of the 21st century.

One of those experts, Ron Wetherington, a respected evolutionary anthropologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is understandably alarmed. In a letter late last week to state board members, Wetherington asked that his fellow panelists be left to do their work free from further political pressure and unfair criticism.

That hardly seems like an unreasonable request. But don’t hold your breath.

That’s because another constant on the State Board of Education has been an open disdain for teachers, scholars and expertise in general. During the debate on science standards in 2009, the creationist who then served as board chair infamously declared that “someone’s gotta stand up to experts.” That was not a proud moment for Texas.

As we saw last week, some board members are still “standing up to experts.” They’re also standing in the way of giving Texas students a 21st-century education.