Grantsburg Activists Budge School Board

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Grantsburg Activists Budge School Board
Author(s): 
Andrew J Petto
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2004
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
9–11
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Grantsburg, a small northwestern Wisconsin town of about 1100 people, drew the attention of scientists and educators throughout the state when the school board passed a motion on June 28, 2004, to "direct our science department to teach all theories of origins." Parents and other citizens in the community were alarmed and questioned the school board over the summer about the meaning and intent of the motion. After a number of well-attended and contentious school board meetings, the policy was amended for the first time at the October 12, 2004, school board meeting. The revised statement read: "When theories of origin are taught, students will study various scientific models or theories of origin and identify the scientific data supporting each."

This adjustment made the intent a little clearer, and those concerned about the policy were even more alarmed. When the district's science teachers asked for clarification about the "various scientific models or theories of origin" and about curricular implementation of the policy, the school board responded in early November with a lengthy document consisting entirely of materials downloaded (without attribution) from the Discovery Institute's website, including 42 of the 44 items in the bibliography submitted to the Ohio State Board of Education in 2002 (see RNCSE 2002 Aug/Sep; 22 [4]: 12–8, 23–4; also available on-line at http://www.ncseweb.org/media/Analysis-of-the-Discovery-Institute.pdf). By this time, the local supporters of good science education had contacted NCSE for support, advice, and resources to help them to convince the school board to reverse its policy.

Expert Testimony

Concerned citizens continued to press the school board, asking for clarifications and documentation of their claims that this policy was needed to improve science education in Grantsburg. In response to growing outcry, the school board invited "expert" testimony on the need for balancing the curriculum with alternative "theories of origin". Because none of these experts was a member of the scientific or science education communities, evolution supporters continued to insist that the school board hear testimony from mainstream scientists and educators to respond to the claims made in these meetings by the "expert" witnesses. The school board turned aside all requests, citing a need to "move on" to pressing matters, and one member suggested to concerned citizens that if they wanted a forum to present the scientific side of the argument, then they ought to hold one themselves. Thus, Citizens for Quality Education (CQE) was formed; eventually the group organized, promoted, and held its own half-day forum on evolution and science education.

During October, Grantsburg's visibility rose throughout the state — and in the nearby Twin Cities' media market. Reporters interviewed a number of citizens, and stories appeared in major newspapers across the state. NCSE members also got involved, including Michael Zimmerman, who recruited 44 deans of Colleges of Letters and Sciences (the liberal arts divisions) in all 26 of the University of Wisconsin campuses to join in warning Grantsburg that this policy was bad for science education in the district and potentially detrimental to the future academic success of Grantsburg's students. Zimmerman also engaged in lengthy conversations and e-mail exchanges with Superintendent of Schools Joni Burgin and School Board President David Ahlquist, but soon found that the board was determined to push this policy through. Zimmerman continued to solicit letters from higher-education faculty throughout Wisconsin with specialties in religious studies, anthropology, life sciences, and geology. He also organized similar letters from the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers and a coalition of clergy throughout the state. In all, there were nearly 1300 individuals signing on to the letters urging Grantsburg to reconsider its policy.

Grantsburg citizens and NCSE members also sought help from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction regarding Grantsburg's obvious flouting of the directive to maintain evolution as one of the unifying themes of science curriculum in the state:
Students in Wisconsin will understand that there are unifying themes: systems, order, organization, and interactions; evidence, models, and explanations; constancy, change, and measurement; evolution, equilibrium, and energy; form and function among scientific disciplines. (Wisconsin Model Academic Standards, Science, Standard A: Science Connections. Available on-line at http://www.pi.state.wi.us/dpi/standards/scistana.html)
DPI Science Consultant Shelley Lee, a strong advocate of evolution education, provided parents in Grantsburg with documentation of the DPI's official position, but educational standards in Wisconsin are "advisory" and, except for a few items passed into law, cannot be enforced in opposition to decisions such as the one taken in Grantsburg.

The Policy Evolves

The attention did have some effect on Grantsburg, however. Even though Burgin later told the St Paul Pioneer Press (2004 Dec 17) that she and the board were unimpressed by all the protest around the state — "The amount of letters [sic] and the number of signatures does not matter. … The school board feels that they [sic] must do what is right for Grantsburg students and the Grantsburg community" — the board responded in a way. On December 6, 2004, the school board revised its policy one more time, apparently to avoid charges that the intent of the board was to allow (or require) teaching creationism in one of its forms, including "intelligent design". The new policy read:
Students are expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information. Students shall be able to explain the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. This policy does not call for the teaching of creationism or intelligent design.
Despite the school board's claims to the contrary, however, it was unable to provide any examples of appropriate materials that were not based either in "intelligent design" or in other creationist models. In ongoing correspondence with Burgin and the school board, Zimmerman pressed the issue of what it was the policy did call for the teachers to teach. To date, the board has provided no guidance about curricular materials and content other than the material downloaded from the Discovery Institute's website in November 2004.

In the waning months of 2004, Citizens for Quality Education organized a 4-hour program addressing the major issues in evolution education and concluding with a panel of local clergy to address concerns raised in the community about the religious implications of evolution education (see sidebar, p 12, for the program). The program was presented on January 8, 2005, and attracted about 100 people who attended all or part of the program. Among the observers were three school board members, including President Ahlquist, and the high school principal. At the end of the program, there was a feeling of accomplishment and genuine respect among participants and observers on both sides of the issue. However, the school board members did not see fit to make any changes in the policy previously implemented on December 6.

Continuing Discord

In the wake of the school board's decision to let the policy stand, two supporters of evolution decided to take political action and file their candidacies for seats on the school board in the April 2005 elections. On April 6, 2005, the Burnett County Sentinel reported unofficially that incumbents Cindy Jensen and David Ahlquist had retained their seats with 703 and 669 votes, respectively, while the challengers, Greg Palmquist and Steve McNally, received 644 and 614 votes. Although both pro-evolution candidates lost, supporters pointed out that School Board President Ahlquist retained his seat by less than a 2% margin — quite an accomplishment for political novices with a short time to plan an election campaign.

One unhappy outcome of all the controversy in this small town was a sense of division among the citizens. Suzanne and Blaise Vitale provide a first-person account of the effects of this policy on the fabric of the community reminiscent of the experience of citizens in Darby, Montana (see "Shall we let our children think?" by Victoria Clark in RNCSE 2004 Mar/Apr; 24 [2]: 10–1). However, in the end, CQE and its supporters may have underestimated their impact on the quality of education in Grantsburg. One local observer from a nearby community responded this way:
I am truly sorry that this did not turn out the way we all wanted. The [election] results were close, very close. The folks here did a great job trying to educate the public. The results indicate that a significant number of people got the idea. Don't give up. The school board voted 6–0 less than a year ago to teach creationism as science. They spent the better part of the intervening time back-pedaling from one untenable position to another.
With ongoing legal action in Dover, Pennsylvania, and flare-ups in Kansas and Gull Lake, Michigan, the Grantsburg school board may see reason to retreat even more from the original policy. NCSE continues to advise, monitor, and provide resources in Grantsburg.

[Thanks to Susan Spath, Wisconsin NCSE members, and concerned citizens of Grantsburg for information used in this report.]

About the Author(s): 
Andrew J Petto
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201-0413
editor@ncseweb.org