TOPEKA, Kan.-- In the beginning, there was the theory of evolution. That was until the Kansas State Board of Education voted two years ago to remove it as the sole explanation of the origin of man from the state's public school curriculum.
But in a 7-to-3 vote today, the board reversed that decision, reinstating evolution with the adoption of new state science standards and essentially mandating that evolution be taught in public schools throughout the state.
Kansas' move back to evolution became apparent last August when voters in a Republican primary defeated three conservative members of the school board who had supported the earlier decision, after public debate quickly spiraled into a movement to vote out those responsible for the change and to vote in those who promised to reverse it.
This morning's decision was greeted with applause from supporters who attended the hearing in a crowded room at the state board of education headquarters on a cold, drizzly day.
The move also dealt a blow to creationists and others who had applauded the school board's decision in August 1999 to remove evolution from the state's science curriculum. The standards are guidelines for teaching and testing. The document adopted today is a version of another first presented to the board two years ago and will be used as a reference in developing statewide tests for students this spring.
Adoption of the standards places evolution squarely back into the state's science curriculum, but not without adding language that may appease Christian conservatives and others who oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools as the origin of man.
" 'Understand' does not mandate 'belief,' " the document the board adopted says. "While students may be required to understand some concepts that researchers use to conduct research and solve practical problems, they may accept or reject the scientific concepts presented. This applies particularly where students' and/or parents' beliefs may be at odds with the current scientific theories or concepts."
In a statement, Gov. Bill Graves praised the board's decision, saying, "The students of Kansas will benefit from the broader and more comprehensive science standards supported by the current Board of Education."
A 27-member committee of science teachers and other experts appointed by the board wrote the 100-page document. The booklet, "Kansas Science Education Standards," refers to evolution as "a broad, unifying theoretical framework in biology."
The document also states, on Page 5, under the heading "Teaching With Tolerance and Respect":
"Teachers should not ridicule, belittle or embarrass a student for expressing an alternative view or belief. If a student should raise a question in a natural science class that the teacher determines to be outside the domain of science, the teacher should treat the question with respect. The teacher should explain why the question is outside the domain of natural science and encourage the student to discuss the question further with his or her family and other appropriate sources."
In August 1999, the board, with conservative Republicans in the majority, voted 6 to 4 to eliminate evolution. The decision did not prohibit the teaching of evolution, but left the option to local school districts. It did, however, remove evolution as the sole explanation for the origin of man, including some references to evolution, the Big Bang theory and the earth's age.
That meant that evolution would not be included in state assessment tests that evaluate student performance. Critics of that policy said it would discourage some teachers from devoting any time to the subject. At the time, news of Kansas' decision echoed across the country, particularly in states that had dealt with the fight over creationism and evolution.
Steve Abrams, a member of the conservative minority who voted today against reinstating evolution, was part of the conservative majority in 1999. Before today's vote, Mr. Abrams, who was re-elected to the board in November, expressed his continued opposition to teaching evolution and argued against the notion that the battle over the last two years could be boiled down to the "religious right versus science."
"Every time religion is brought up, it's brought up by someone on the opposition," Mr. Abrams told the board. "Not one time have I talked about that, the fact that religion is an integral part of this. I'm saying that we ought to be following what good science is."
Mr. Abrams had unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to the standards in favor of teaching "intelligent design," a theory that asserts that man and the universe were the work of God.
"If it's the religious right, it may be the religious right versus the religious left," Mr. Abrams said. "That's a possibility. But certainly I don't espouse that. What I do espouse is the idea that it's good science: what is observable, measurable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable, good empirical science. And this does not leave that with us."
In addressing Mr. Abrams's concerns today, another board member, Janet Waugh, said: "We are not atheists on this board. I believe the board members are all Christians, and we have no problem with Christianity or any other religion being taught, but it cannot be taught in a science class."
After the vote, board members as well as the state education commissioner, Andy Tompkins, expressed relief that the evolution debate, at least where the Kansas school board was concerned, was finally over. Still, he does not expect the issue to disappear.
"I think there's some resolve right now," Mr. Tompkins said. "But I think the issue, in terms of people talking about it, and what's going to happen, is probably going to continue, not only in our state, but probably in other states also."
© 2001 John W. Fountain. All rights reserved. International
File Date: 2.22.01