Evolution Debate at Center of Ohio Board of Education Race

Evolution Debate at Center of Ohio Board of Education Race
BY SCOTT STEPHENS - Newhouse News Service - 10/26/2006
CLEVELAND -- On his radio talk show last month, Pastor Ernie Sanders didn't mince words about the importance of this fall's race between State Board of Education member Deborah Owens Fink and her challenger, Tom Sawyer.

"If you believe in God, creation and true science, vote for Debbie," he intoned on "What's Right, What's Left," a talk show broadcast from Geauga County. "If you believe in evolution, abortion and sin, you've got Tom Sawyer, right?"

Sawyer and Owens Fink, who was a guest on the show with Sanders, are among 16 candidates vying for five of the 11 elected seats on the 19-member board.

But the most important person in the election has been dead for 124 years.

Charles Darwin, the 19th century British naturalist whose theory of evolution remains the bedrock of scientific thought today, has turned normally tepid board races into donnybrooks.

At issue is the board's four-year struggle over how to best teach Ohio's public school students about the origins of life on Earth. It's a topic that has caused bitter splits on the board and thrust Ohio into the national spotlight.

"I think it's really a referendum on the issue," said G.R. "Sam" Schloemer, a pro-evolution state board member being challenged by John Hritz, a conservative millionaire who wants to include alternatives to Darwinism in science class.

For most of its history, the State Board of Education has been a political backwater, a faceless body that barely registered with voters. The board handles important but often mundane tasks such as governing the Ohio Department of Education, recommending budgets to the governor and the legislature, adopting and overseeing administrative rules for local school districts, licensing teachers and proposing student standards.

The adoption of Ohio's science standards changed that. The board adopted standards that included a strong evolution plank. But it also included a model lesson for teachers' use that called for a "critical analysis" of Darwin's widely accepted theory that life on Earth descended from common ancestors.

Scientists cried foul, arguing that the lesson created a controversy where there was none by singling out evolution for criticism. Critical analysis, they said, was little more than warmed-over intelligent design, the concept that life is so complex that a supernatural being must have had a hand in its development.

Fueled by intelligent design's setback in a Dover, Pa, court case, a majority of board members voted early this year to eliminate the lesson plan. But new versions of the disputed lesson continue to pop up, and critical-analysis proponents on the board vow to keep the issue alive.

"I will guarantee you that as long as I am chair of the committee, it's going to be on the agenda," board member Michael Cochran, a minister and lawyer, said last month.

The aftershocks of the raucous debate hit the political arena last summer when a group of scientists decided to support pro-evolution candidates and work against those favoring intelligent design or creationism. The group, Help Ohio Public Education, recruited Sawyer, the former Akron mayor and 16-year congressman, to take on Owens Fink.

"Our hope is to at least put these races on the map," said Patricia Princehouse, co-founder of HOPE and a faculty member at Case Western Reserve University. "Maybe people will at least know the names of the people who are running."

Seemingly unfazed, Owens Fink vows to beat off the challenge. The University of Akron marketing professor, who spent nothing on previous board races, had raised nearly $60,000 for the battle through September, according to state records.

"I'll spend whatever I need to spend to win this race," she said. "I know I've been a target of these people for a long time. It's obvious these people don't care about broad, scientific issues. I've come to the conclusion that for many of them, Darwin is their God."

Sawyer enjoys good name recognition in the 600,000-resident 7th District. But through September, he had raised less than a fifth of what Owens Fink had.

"If I don't get completely avalanched by money, I ought to be able to win this," Sawyer said. "I don't think anyone in Ohio brings a greater depth or breadth of experience than I bring to this. I think Debbie has squandered a great gift and used it for a narrow agenda."

When the smoke clears, the election this fall will likely raise the profile of state board members and renew interest in issues beyond evolution and intelligent design.

But not before the candidates go through a bare-knuckled battle rarely seen in the usually genteel contests for the state board.

"I feel like I walked into a hurricane," Sawyer admitted. "I'm trying to get to the eye."

(Scott Stephens is a reporter for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. He can be contacted at sstephens@plaind.com.)