Expert education panel sparks doubts

Expert education panel sparks doubts
Three nominees set to review Texas science standards question theory of evolution.
By Laura Heinauer - AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF - 10/16/2008 - original
One of the leading proponents of intelligent design and two scientists who say they have doubts about the theory of evolution are among the six-member panel of experts that will be reviewing a set of proposed science curriculum standards expected to be adopted by the state next year.

The standards, which are scheduled to be approved by the State Board of Education next March, will determine what is taught in Texas science classes and found in state science textbooks for the next decade.

The draft to be reviewed by the panel of experts was penned by a board-nominated committee of science teachers and curriculum experts who removed language from the state's current curriculum that requires teaching the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, an explanation for the diversity of species in nature. Critics of the language say it opens the door to teaching creationism and intelligent design, which hold that the origins of the universe stem from a higher power.

Each member of the new panel of experts was nominated by two members of the state board. State officials said a seventh panel member could be nominated. The panel is expected to send recommendations on the proposal back to the board in the coming months. The state board probably will hold a public hearing on the standards in November. Final adoption is slated for March.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the board asked for an expert review because members thought it would be an improvement over the process used during the adoption of the English, Language Arts and Reading curriculum earlier this year. During that process, some complained about receiving a never-before-seen draft of the lengthy document less than an hour before the board was to take a final vote.

Gail Lowe, a Lampasas Republican, said she did not have any litmus test on evolution for selecting her nominee, Charles Garner, a Baylor chemistry professor, to the panel of experts.

Garner is one of more than 700 signatories of a petition titled "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism" developed by the Discovery Institute, a group that promotes the idea that life is a result of an intelligent creator.

Lowe has said she would like to see the standards require that the strengths and weaknesses of evolution be taught.

"I figured others would be nominating people with a biology background. (Garner) offers another area of expertise that I thought might be overlooked," said Lowe, who along with Terri Leo, a Spring Republican, nominated Garner. "Also, he is in my district and from Baylor, and I am pleased he was willing to do it."

The selection of Garner, Stephen Meyer, a senior fellow and vice president of the Discovery Institute, and Ralph Seelke, a science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, was quickly criticized by the Texas Freedom Network, an education advocacy group that says it monitors the religious right.

Meyer was nominated by board members Cynthia Dunbar and David Bradley. Seelke, who has said his research with bacteria causes him to question evolution, was nominated by Barbara Cargill and Ken Mercer. Meyer and Seelke are co-authors of Explore Evolution: The Case For And Against Neo-Darwinism.

"I think these state board members have really lifted the veil on what their real agenda is here," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the network. "It's clear they picked a few experts and a few people with a clear conflict of interest and a political agenda."

Seelke, who said he was asked by Cargill to be a panelist, said his research is focused not on promoting alternative theories to evolution, but rather to test it. "I am very comfortable simply asking what can evolution really do," he said. "If it turns out the answer is not much, then you're back to, 'How did we really get here?' "

The three other nominated panelists are University of Texas integrative biology professor David Hillis, Texas Tech University education professor and dean emeritus Gerald Skoog and Southern Methodist University anthropology professor Ronald Wetherington.

Board Chairman Don McLeroy, a College Station Republican, Lawrence Allen, a Houston Democrat, and Rick Agosto, a San Antonio Democrat, did not make nominations.; 445-3694