Evolution question shadows state races

Evolution question shadows state races
Omaha World Herald - Oct 26, 2006

For the last year, Nebraska felt nary a breeze as a storm whipped up in Kansas over the teaching of evolution in science classes.

But the political winds have shifted north across the state line, settling quietly over three races for the Nebraska State Board of Education.

Amid the low-key campaigns, three candidates say that philosophically they favor incorporating alternate theories on the origin of humans - creationism or the newer intelligent design - into science class.

Nebraska's science standards currently require teaching the theory of evolution.

It's not clear how much the three candidates would push for changes if they were elected to the state board. But in interviews, the three - Marilyn Carpenter of Grand Island, Alan Jacobsen of Denton and Paula Pfister of Lexington - expressed a willingness to discuss how Nebraska's standards might include alternate theories.

Even if the three won, it appears unlikely that the state curriculum standards in Nebraska would shift.

That's what happened last November in Kansas, when that state's board of education raised doubts about evolution in its new science standards.

In Nebraska, the eight current state board members have shown no inclination to raise the issue. But the Nov. 7 election could set up a future debate over evolution - or quell the issue.

"It's probably not very far below the surface in any state board," said incumbent Joe Higgins of Omaha, who is facing his own competitive election. "It's always below the surface, I suppose, waiting for the topic to rise back to the top."

School boards and science classes have long been a battleground for evolution vs. creationism. The debate has intensified recently, with a twist.

The theory of intelligent design has risen in prominence, providing what supporters claim is a scientific counterargument to evolution. Intelligent design proposes that human life is so complex that an unseen designer must have developed it.

The scientific community still overwhelmingly supports evolution. While evolution is called a theory, proponents say it is established science. Critics of intelligent design call that theory pseudoscience.

Last year, intelligent design stood trial in a case over the Dover, Pa., school district's policy that required introduction of the theory. A federal judge struck down the policy as a violation of the separation of church and state, linking intelligent design with creationism, not science.

The Kansas Board of Education didn't go as far as endorsing intelligent design, although that movement's supporters applauded the board's challenge to evolution.

But the board's anti-evolution stance was roundly criticized by scientists. In this year's primary election, Kansas voters rejected two conservative candidates, setting up the state to shift its standards back once a new board is seated.

In Nebraska, the issue has remained quiet since 2002, when the last debate erupted before the state board. Board members rejected incorporating alternate theories into Nebraska's standards, affirming that students must learn "the theory of biological evolution."

At that time, Education Commissioner Doug Christensen said the science standards give teachers flexibility to discuss counterarguments.

In the next election, voters booted two board members who wanted to open the standards to other theories.

In this election, the incumbents facing Carpenter, Jacobsen and Pfister say they support the current standards.

Board President Fred Meyer of St. Paul, who is running against Carpenter, said it's fair for alternate theories to be discussed in class. But he said those don't belong in Nebraska's standards.

Incumbent Patricia Timm of Beatrice, who faces Jacobsen, said she doesn't believe intelligent design or creationism belongs in science class.

Board member Kandy Imes of Gering, who faces Pfister, agreed with Timm that the debate would be appropriate for other courses.

"I don't feel like it's a science issue," Imes said. "I don't think it belongs in science."

In the Omaha race, Higgins and challenger Dick Galusha said they support Nebraska's current standard. Both also expressed support for the evolution debate being part of other courses, but not science.

The four other seats on the board are not up for election this year.

Carpenter, Jacobsen and Pfister all have education experience, as elected members of their local educational service unit boards.

Two had strong showings in the primary. Carpenter placed first over Meyer; Jacobsen finished 1 percentage point behind Timm.

Pfister said classes should teach proven science, which she said evolution is not. If the issue came before the board, she said she would support putting the teaching of all theories into Nebraska's science standards.

"If you're going to teach theories, you should teach all theories, not just evolution," she said.

Carpenter said creationism should at least be introduced when evolution is taught.

But Carpenter said she would not raise the issue of teaching alternate theories if elected to the state board. If the issue came up, she said, she would discuss it. If a majority of the board favored including alternate theories in state standards, she would vote for it, she said.

On the issue of creationism, Carpenter said, "I do believe it needs to be taught. We know the majority of people are Christians."

Jacobsen, an advocate of intelligent design, said that he is glad the current standard doesn't treat evolution as a fact and that teachers have an opening to introduce other theories. If the standards arose again, Jacobsen said, he would support incorporating intelligent design.

He said other issues are his main priorities.

"I'm not making it an issue," he said. "I don't intend to make it an issue."

Even so, Nebraska's science standards could be coming before the next state board.

Betty VanDeventer, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Education Department, said officials are developing a plan for reviewing the state's academic standards, including science. But no timeline, she said, has been set.