Northeast Florida balks at evolution
Northeast Florida balks at evolutionSchool districts are objecting to a proposed change in science class.School boards across Northeast Florida are objecting to Florida's proposed new science standards that would, for the first time in state history, require schools to teach that evolution is the backbone of all biological science.
By Matt Soergel, The Florida Times-Union - 1/17/2008 - original
The boards in St. Johns and Baker counties have unanimously passed resolutions urging the Florida Department of Education to back down from those new standards on evolution. The matter comes up tonight in Clay County, and Nassau and Putnam counties have similar resolutions pending.
Rural Taylor County, southeast of Tallahassee, was the first to approve a resolution on the matter, according to the state Department of Education. Baker was second and St. Johns third, on Tuesday night.
The Duval County School Board, which oversees the largest school system in the region, has not yet made a decision on the new science standards, said Chairwoman Betty Burney.
"It hasn't come up with us yet because we've been focused on other things," she said.
The board, however, will be studying the issue. "We don't want to make any rash decisions," Burney said.
Backers of the resolutions contend they're not trying to drive evolution out of schools. Instead, they say they object to presenting evolution as - in the words of the St. Johns County resolution - a "dogmatic fact."
Some school superintendents say the resolutions reflect the religious nature of their constituents in Northeast Florida.
"Of course, the farther south you get, you don't see them necessarily embracing what we are saying," said Baker County Superintendent Paula Barton. "To be honest with you, we are a strong Christian community here, and once people here have gotten a hold of [the resolution], they've certainly given it strong support."
Nassau County Superintendent John Ruis said he is a strong believer in biblical creationism. The theory of evolution has many "holes" in it, he said - and presenting it as undisputed fact "is certainly contrary to the beliefs of many people, including myself."
Clay County's retiring superintendent, David Owens, said the state is "interfering" in what should be a local matter. Other theories on the origin of life should be presented along with evolution, he said.
"I believe in the separation of church and state, but I also believe there is important information available on both sides of [evolution]," he said. "To present it in just one way is wrong."
Other backers of the resolutions say it isn't their intent to introduce into classrooms beliefs such as creationism or intelligent design.
However, said Beverly Slough of the St. Johns County School Board: "If students bring up things like that, I think they should have a forum to discuss it if they want to."
Slough helped draft a resolution that passed by a 5-0 vote Tuesday. It asked the state to revise the science standards to "allow for balanced, objective and intellectually open instruction in regard to evolution, teaching the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory rather than teaching evolution as dogmatic fact."
Co-author defends proposal
David Campbell, a science teacher at Ridgeview High School in Orange Park, was one of the writers of the new science standards on evolution. He said they won't prevent discussion on other beliefs about evolution - indeed, that's a topic that comes up regularly in class.
"I tell my students: 'I'm not asking you to believe it. I'm not asking you to accept it as the way things are. I'm asking you to understand it,' " he said.
The Department of Education is scheduled to vote on the new standards in science and other fields of study Feb. 19. In current schools standards, the word "evolution" is not mentioned. Instead, references are made to biological "changes over time."
Polls consistently show that about half of Americans don't believe in evolution. But Jay Labov, a senior adviser at the National Academy for Sciences, which advises the U.S. government, said the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.
"Only science should be taught in science courses," he said. "Various forms of creationism, including intelligent design, is not considered science."
Campbell said that if alternative beliefs were put on par with evolution, who would decide which theories should be taught?
"I could teach Norse mythology," he joked.
Josh Rosenau is spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group that advocates the teaching of evolution in schools. Understanding evolution is crucial, he said: "It's the foundation of all modern biology, medicine, agriculture. If you want people to go on and be successful in college, if they want to be researchers, doctors, or work in the industry, they need the background."
If Florida approves the new science standards next month, school districts will have little choice but to follow them, said Slough from the St. Johns County board.
"Then we teach the standards as written, because that's what the law requires," she said.
Barton, from Baker County, was a little more defiant.
"We'll cross that bridge once we get there," she said.