SBOE Members Can’t Stop Themselves, Launch New Attack on Evolution

Already bogged down in controversies over the proposed adoption of an offensive and error-riddled Mexican-American studies textbook and a revision of the state’s language arts curriculum standards, State Board of Education members this week launched a fresh assault on the teaching of evolution in Texas public schools. In response, TFN President Kathy Miller delivered the following letter to the state board today.

September 16, 2016

To Members of the State Board of Education of Texas:

I would like to address and clarify a few issues raised earlier this week in a misleading discussion by this board about the process of streamlining the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for science.

First, it was deeply disturbing Wednesday evening to see an effort to disparage and undermine the work of educators and scholars appointed to streamline the TEKS for biology. That panel hasn’t even finished its report. Yet one of its members decided to criticize – openly and unfairly – the work of the panelists, and a number of state board members seemed willing to call into question their objectivity and professionalism based on hearsay from one individual.

What you heard from Ray Bohlin on Wednesday evening was a one-sided perspective. This associate of two prominent anti-evolution organizations, the Discovery Institute and Probe Ministries, claimed that there was a “quick and concerted effort” by the majority of his fellow panelists to remove any standards that question evolution. Some board members even suggested that the panelists somehow want to prevent students from asking questions. Such claims are simply outrageous.

The board’s Wednesday agenda didn’t identify that this was a public hearing or note that the board would entertain testimony on the subject. The agenda described the routine item as it always does – an opportunity for TEA staff to update the board about the TEKS review. As a result, no other panelists were present to offer their views. So they weren’t able to defend themselves against the suggestion that they had somehow engaged in a nefarious plot to defend the teaching of evolution in the second decade of the 21st century.

But the Texas Freedom Network did have a staff member present to observe the meeting of the biology panel this summer. So I can fill in some information that was missing from Bohlin’s account.

Most troubling was our discovery that Charles Garner, a chemistry professor and (like Bohlin) a noted evolution denier, had been added at the last minute to the biology panel. Through a Texas Public Information Request, we have since obtained emails showing that an SBOE board member, Barbara Cargill, pressured TEA staff to add Garner to the panel after the public deadline. Ms. Cargill succeeded even though a member of the TEA professional staff respectfully pointed out that Garner lacked the necessary experience in biology and that other applicants were far more qualified. Unilaterally adding members to the panel outside the normal, public process is a major issue that this board might want to consider addressing moving forward.

Second, we observed that the majority of the eight-member panel was composed of well-qualified, experienced educators, as well as an evolutionary anthropologist. Their discussions of the TEKS and efforts to streamline them were informed, respectful and professional. Bohlin and Garner were given ample opportunity to explain their opposition to the removal of several of the standards regarding challenges to evolution. But they lost each of those debates, with the panel voting 6-2 to remove each one.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the majority removed those standards. The SBOE tasked the panel with streamlining the standards, and panelists did so in part by removing problematic standards that scientists have repeatedly said are unnecessary, misleading and based on junk science.

For those of you who were not on the board in 2008-09 – the last revision to Texas’ science TEKS – we have seen this exact debate before. The science TEKS writing teams in 2009 did not include these problematic standards. But members of the state board, determined to undermine the teaching of evolution, actually cobbled these standards together at the final hearing. No scientists or educators had an opportunity to review or comment on them. In other words, these standards were originally written by politicians – not scientists. Now it appears history might be repeating itself, as board members once again try to force their ideology into the state’s science standards.

This new effort to blindside and impugn the professionalism of individuals who volunteered their time to serve on the biology curriculum panel is appalling. In fact, it threatens to undermine the public trust in the board’s entire effort to streamline the curriculum standards.

The state board should respect the process it has established and refrain from any further efforts to pressure curriculum panelists and undermine their work. The state’s curriculum standards should be based on facts, sound scholarship and the recommendations of respected and well-qualified educators and scientists, not the personal beliefs of anti-science ideologues and politicians. Texas has been embarrassed enough already, and our kids deserve far better.

Kathy Miller
President, Texas Freedom Network