Fresh airing of evolution draws crowd

Fresh airing of evolution draws crowd
As the Florida Board of Education prepares to change science standards in the state's schools,
supporters and detractors of evolution voice their opinions.
BY HANNAH SAMPSON - Miami Herald - 01/07/2008 - original
To hear some Floridians tell it Tuesday night, introducing the word "evolution" into state science-education standards would be a needed step into the 21st century.

Others at a meeting at Everglades High School in Miramar urged state education officials to give other theories of the origin of life equal space -- and let students decide what to believe.

"We don't teach science in Sunday school," said Ken Loukinen, president of the Atheists of Broward County. "Please don't teach religion in science class."

The public forum -- the fourth statewide and only one in South Florida -- was the last before the state Board of Education votes on new science standards Feb. 19. Approximately 80 people attended the meeting Tuesday night, with about 30 signing up to speak.

In the past few months, thousands have commented on the proposed standards on a state website, which is now closed to public remarks, and hundreds have turned out at meetings throughout Florida.

The proposed standards contain instructions on how evolution should be taught, beginning in kindergarten. The draft declares: "Evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence."

Current state standards, approved in 1996, refer to "biological change over time" -- a description of evolution -- but contain no mention of the word itself.

Debate in Florida echoes that in Texas, which is preparing a similar revision of its science-education standards. And it also reflects a nationwide split: A Gallup Poll in June showed that 53 percent of Americans questioned believe in evolution, while 44 percent do not.

The continued divide in popular opinion frustrates many scientists and educators.

"There should not be a debate," said Gerry Meisels, director of the Coalition for Science Literacy at the University of South Florida and member of the drafting committee for the new standards in the state. "It's very counterproductive for our children, it's counterproductive for our country, it's counterproductive for our future. This is like the Middle Ages."

At Tuesday's meeting, speakers begged Florida not to be like Tennessee, where the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial over evolution unfolded in 1925.

"Do we want Florida to be the laughingstock of the United States, like Tennessee was at one time, because we teach creationism alongside evolution?" asked J. Alan Beech, 80, who teaches at Miami Dade College's north campus.

Some at Tuesday's meeting had traveled long distances to attend.

Oscar Howard Jr., superintendent of the 3,300-student Taylor County Public Schools near Tallahassee, drove nine hours to speak against the new standards. His district's five-member school board had unanimously voted to oppose them about a month ago.

"We do not believe that evolution is a fact," he said. "It should be taught as a theory along with other theories."

West Palm Beach parent Laura Lopez, who wore a shirt saying "Don't Condone What God Condemns," called evolution a lie spread by Satan.

"People's own belief doesn't negate the reality that the earth was created by God," she said.

Such anti-evolution sentiment has been addressed in numerous reports.

Earlier this month, the National Academy of Sciences released one called Science, Evolution, and Creationism that argues that creationism does not belong in science class.

In 2005, Florida got a failing grade in its teaching of evolution from the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates educational reform.

"Life sciences and evolution are given shorter shrift than any of the others," the report said of Florida's standards. "The E-word is sedulously avoided."