Could science standards devolve into new battle?

Could science standards devolve into new battle?
By Ron Matus, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer - Nov 6, 2008 - original
After the evolution fight ended in February, everyone thought Florida's new science standards were good to go until 2014.

But are they?

Maybe not, according to overlooked wording in one of last spring's new education laws and the opinion of a key legislative staffer.

The new law requires the state Board of Education to adopt new academic standards by the end of 2011. That may include a new set of science standards, because the Board of Education adopted the latest standards a few months before the bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist.

The science standards, developed by teachers and scientists, generated controversy over the description of evolution as a fundamental pillar of modern biology. Scientists gave the standards top ratings for accuracy and depth, but Christian conservatives said they were dogmatic.

The Department of Education recently asked an attorney with the Legislature's Joint Administrative Procedures Committee for his opinion about the new law. The lawyer, Brian Moore, said it seems to be clear. "I think they have to adopt everything again," he said.

Does that mean the department has to conduct another full-blown process to craft new standards? And could that open the door to another knock-down-drag-out?

That's not clear. And Department of Education officials aren't saying much.

"We are currently researching the matter so there are no specifics to offer at this point," department spokesman Tom Butler said in a written statement. "However, we stand by our current science standards and the comprehensive process that was used to develop them."

The response from one critic: "Hallelujah," said Terry Kemple, a Christian activist in Brandon.

Kemple, who helped lead the fight against the standards, said opponents would relish another chance for input. "This is an opportunity for both sides to step back and let this be a fairer endeavor," he said.

In February, the Board of Education voted 4-3 to adopt the new standards, but only after inserting compromise language identifying evolution as a "scientific theory." Still not satisfied, opponents pushed bills that would give teachers "academic freedom" to offer information beyond the standards. The House and Senate passed separate versions but could not agree on a compromise.

The Joint Administrative Procedures Committee includes Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, the lead House sponsor of the academic freedom bill.

Moore, the committee attorney, said neither Hays nor any other committee member had input into his opinion. But he also said members would be consulted if the Department of Education ignored it.

Supporters of the new science standards said the department was blindsided by the oversight in the law, which may also affect the state's new language arts and math standards.

"Maybe the legislators simply overlooked this and there's a simple solution," said Brandon Haught, spokesman for Florida Citizens for Science, which strongly supports the new standards. But until then, the group would "hope for the best but plan for the worst," he said.

The new law says the education board must adopt a review schedule for new standards by Dec. 31, 2008. The board next meets Dec. 2 in Orlando.

The law also says the education commissioner must submit proposed new standards to teachers, experts and others for review. Then they go to the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker before the Board of Education considers adoption.

Another Department of Education spokesperson said it was not clear when the science standards would be revisited, or how intensely they'd be reviewed. "They're going to take a look and see if there's anything new in the science world that they need to put in," the spokesperson said.

Every Board of Education member is up for reappointment by 2011.