Texas Two-Step

State School Board Takes One Step Forward On Science Standards – And Two Steps Back

Don McLeroy has spent the past few months arguing with scientists.

As a fundamentalist Christian and chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, the Bryan dentist has made it clear that he does not care what scientists have to say about evolution or any other scientific topic.

“I disagree with these experts,” McLeroy told the other 14 members of the board when they met in late March to revise the state’s public school science standards. “Somebody has got to stand up to experts….”

Nearly half of the board’s members are Religious Right allies who aim to use their positions to push creationist concepts in the Texas public school system.

Instead of listening to experts, McLeroy looks to sources such as a self-published book called Sowing Atheism: The National Academy of Sciences’ Sinister Scheme to Teach Our Children They’re Descended from Reptiles. McLeroy endorsed Robert Bowie Johnson’s book even though it claims scientists who believe in evolution are “atheists,” parents who want to teach their children about evolution are “monsters” and pastors who support sound science are “morons.”

For months, the board has been engrossed in a debate between its Religious Right members who want to insert religion into the science classroom and the members who want to follow the advice of scientists and respect the constitutional separation of church and state. (See Church & State, “Lone Star Wars,” December 2008.)

The current Texas science standards require students to learn the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution – a standard that McLeroy and other Religious Right board members wanted to stay intact. But to scientists, there are no weaknesses to evolution, and they regard this terminology as merely code language to push non-scientific, religious viewpoints.

The board’s deliberations finally came to an end on March 26-27 with a vote to remove the “strengths and weaknesses” language from the new science curriculum. But what seemed to be a sound science victory has turned out to be far from it.

Knowing they had lost the “strengths and weaknesses” language, several board members succeeded in passing last-minute amendments including new creationist code phrases that could insert religion into the science classroom for the next 10 years – and possibly into science textbooks across the country.

“[T]he document still has plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms,” said Kathy Miller, president of Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a progressive group that Americans United works alongside to monitor and oppose the Religious Right in Texas. “Through a series of contradictory and convoluted amendments, the board crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks.”

In two years, the same board will approve new textbooks based on whether they meet the state’s curriculum standards. Language found in these new amendments allows teachers to challenge several accepted scientific ideas, and this means the textbooks must do so as well.

With Texas being the second-largest purchaser of textbooks, many publishers create books based on the needs of schools there. The misguided curriculum decisions of the state board will then filter through to textbooks in schools across the country.

“Will publishers cave in to pressure from the Texas board to include junk science in their textbooks?” asks Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “It has happened before. Publishers will have to choose between junk science and real science.”

The “junk science” in Texas’ new curriculum includes new language that requires students to consider “all sides” of scientific explanations. Students must also consider “differing scientific theories” about the origins of the universe, and language that previously referenced the scientific consensus that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old has been removed.

Other standards approved by the board appear harmless but are filled with creationist “babble,” said TFN spokesman Dan Quinn. For example, students will be required to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any date of sudden appearance.” “Sudden appearance,” Quinn said, has been an argument frequently made by intelligent-design creationists.

Another amendment requires students to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.” According to Quinn, this tactic reflects creationist arguments that claim life is so complex that its creation had to be guided by an unseen force.

 Quinn said some members of the board probably viewed the final curriculum incorporating these amendments as a compromise.

“The seven creationists on the board are hardcore ideologues,” he said. “They vote as a bloc, they are committed and determined and have a very planned political strategy.

“The other eight members are not ideologues” he continued. “They are actually looking for good public policy. They want to search for a ‘compromise.’ But you can’t compromise what is honest science and what is not honest science.”

Concluded Quinn, “It’s like if I say ‘two plus two equals four,’ and you say ‘two plus two equals six,’ I’m not going to compromise and say ‘two plus two equals five.’ That would just be wrong.”

Nonetheless, this type of “compromise” is not new to Texas. In 1997, when the word “evolution” was first added to Texas biology standards, the board also passed a Biology Textbook Proclamation, which stated that evolutionary explanations in biology texts would be required to include “weaknesses.”

Quinn explained that in 2003, several members of the board tried to reject textbooks that did not teach the “weaknesses” of evolution.

“But they didn’t have enough votes, it was 11-4,” he said. “Now, they think they have enough votes.”

Which is why, despite the elimination of the “strengths and weaknesses” languages, many creationists are celebrating Texas’ new science curriculum as a victory.

“Texas now has the most progressive science standards on evolution in the entire nation,” said John West, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an intelligent-design think tank in Seattle, Wash. “Texas has sent a clear message that evolution should be taught as a scientific theory open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.”

McLeroy and his allies on the board claim these amendments have nothing to do with teaching creationism or a particular religious belief, but the board’s Religious Right mindset is apparent.

Four members, Terry Leo, Cynthia Dunbar, Barbara Cargill and Gail Lowe, previously advocated for schools to use the National Council on Bible Curriculum in the Public Schools’ discredited and unconstitutional proselytizing materials. (Dunbar is a graduate of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University and author of One Nation Under God.)

The political climate at the Texas Education Agency further shows the board’s commitment to a Religious Right agenda. In 2007, Chris Castillo Comer was forced to resign from her position as director of science curriculum after sending an e-mail announcing an expert’s lecture on fundamentalist threats to science education.

The Austin lecture featured Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Forrest’s 2004 book exposed the theocratic agenda of the Discovery Institute and other creationist organizations.

The Texas Education Agency claimed that Comer, by sending the e-mail, violated the board’s policy of being “neutral” on the topic of evolution. Comer filed a lawsuit against the agency and Education Commissioner Robert Scott, but in March a federal district court dismissed the case.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel (a George W. Bush appointee) found the school’s demand for neutrality to be reasonable, given that the state school board members are often divided on these issues as well.

Civil liberties advocates will be watching developments closely.

In a March 24 letter to the state board, Americans United warned that litigation may be necessary if science standards revisions lead to religious instruction in the public schools.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told reporters, “Texas can either have world-class science standards or allow fundamentalists to sneak religion into classrooms through the back door. It can’t do both.”