Kansas state school board adopts standards that ignore evolution

Thursday, August 12, 1999

Public school students in Kansas will be able to graduate without having to know much about evolution, under standards adopted yesterday by the state's board of education.

The 10-member State Board of Education voted 6-4 to adopt science standards that students must be tested on before graduating from the state's high schools. Those standards include no mention of evolution and ignore standards that a panel of 27 state science instructors had presented to the board in May.

The state science panel's standards would have required students to understand major concepts of biological evolution.

The standards adopted yesterday, however, allow local school boards to choose whether to require the teaching of evolution. Because evolution will not be included in the state board's student assessment tests, local school districts may now decide not to focus on or even discuss evolution in science courses.

John Staver, director of the Center for Science Education at Kansas State University and co-chair of the state science panel, said that the standards adopted by the board are a “travesty.” Staver said that “the foundational reasoning for the adoption of the standards were [board members'] creationist religious views — a majority of the board are fundamentalist Christians who read the Bible literally and they see conflicts in stories told in Genesis and the theory of evolution.”

Staver said the absence of evolution in the state's science standards would “ultimately cause students to fall behind as they compete for college admissions.” He also said local school boards would be free to ignore evolution altogether and “adopt creationist-based textbooks that are inappropriate” for science classes.

Steve E. Abrams, a Republican board member, criticized the state science panel's standards, saying “it is not good science to teach evolution as fact.”

A nonprofit educational group based in Cleveland, Mo., called the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, worked with several of the board members to create the new science standards.

The group's Web site states its members are “concerned about the widespread false teaching called 'evolution.'” One of the group's objectives is educating people “regarding the vast amount of scientific evidence that supports Biblical Creation as the true account of origins, and that the general theory of evolution is not only a false notion of history, it is an extremely dangerous one, the fruits of which have destroyed entire nations including the wanton slaughter of at least 100 million people in this century.”

Tom Willis, president of Creation Science Association, said that his group had worked with board members to create fair and objective science standards. Willis said such standards would discourage teaching of evolution, which he described as a deceptive theory.

“Evolution has a stranglehold on politicians and scientific organizations,” Willis said. “Historical science requires that teachers and students not talk about a supernatural science.”

Willis, nonetheless, said he thought the board's adoption of the standards would only be a “minor victory,” because “the opposing forces have many ways to undo this action.” Willis noted that Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, suggested after yesterday's vote that the Kansas Constitution should be changed to allow the governor to appoint members to the State Board of Education, instead of appointment by popular election.

Graves said yesterday in a prepared statement that the board's action was “a terrible, tragic, and embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist.”

Two national civil rights groups sent letters to board members urging them not to adopt the standards.

The legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote that the board should not approve “any standards that omit scientifically accepted references to evolutionary theory and replace them with language that conforms to unproven creationist theory.” The group also noted that “courts have closely scrutinized attempts to infuse religious perspectives into the public school curriculum,” and that the board's motivations behind the new standards “will be closely examined.”

People for the American Way, a national civil rights group, accused board members of creating potential legal problems by discouraging schools from teaching evolution and encouraging the infusion of creationism into science classes.

“We can't prepare our children to meet the 21st Century by forcing their science education back into the 19th Century,” Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way, wrote in a letter sent last week to the school board members.

The historic and often vituperative campaign against the teaching of evolution — which originated in Charles Darwin's 1859 book, On the Origin of Species — was and continues to be fueled by biblical literalists who believe evolution undermines the belief that God created Earth and its inhabitants in a matter of days.

Efforts by fundamentalists to bar the teaching of evolution have frequently been stifled by the federal courts.

In 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Edwards v. Aguillard, invalidated a Louisiana “Creationism Act” that forbade the teaching of evolution in the public schools unless accompanied by instruction in the theory of creation science.

Writing for the court majority, Justice William Brennan said it was “clear from the legislative history that the purpose” of the act was to narrow the state's science curriculum “to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind.”

Brennan wrote that the “term 'creation science' was defined as embracing this particular religious doctrine by those responsible for the passage of the Creationism Act.”

Despite the high court's ruling, social conservatives have continued to call on local school boards nationwide to add “creation science” to their science curricula. Last year the National Academy of Sciences issued guidelines to public schools officials urging them not to forgo the teaching of evolution.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director of Americans United, said that the board's adoption of the new standards was “a great embarrassment” for the state.

“Our attorneys will examine the standards and if they open the door to creationism, then a lawsuit may be forthcoming,” Boston said. “Outside a few universities owned by TV preachers, there is not a college or university in this country that does not teach evolution; removing the evolution standards from secondary education in Kansas is a great disservice to the students.”

Boston said he was amazed that evolution was still such a controversial topic in this country. “It is time for fundamentalist Christians to grow up and realize that there is no conflict between religion and science,” he said.