Evolution in the Sunshine State: The Fight Over Evolution in the State Science Standards

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Evolution in the Sunshine State: The Fight Over Evolution in the State Science Standards
Author(s): 
Brandon Haught
Volume: 
28
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2008
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
28-31
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

It is educational and exciting to witness firsthand the evertwisting plot that arises in battles over evolution education. I joined with other Florida Citizens for Science (FCS) members and our associates in the Florida capital, Tallahassee, February 19, 2008, when the board of education met to decide the fate of a brand new set of state science education standards (see RNCSE 2008 Mar/Apr; 28 [2]: 4–7). There is nothing quite like sitting elbow to elbow in a room packed with your friends, your opponents, and more television cameras than can be found at a Britney Spears court appearance.

This final clash had been a long time coming. The last time the science education standards had been revised was 1996. Evolution education had been hit-or-miss because those standards referred to evolution only as “changes over time”. John Winn, Florida’s Education Commissioner in 2005, issued a statement explaining the 1996 version’s phrasing choice:

While the standards for science do not specifically mention evolution, the Grades 9–12 standards do include concepts embraced by the theory, such as natural selection and mutation. The actual term “theory of evolution” was not used as it was felt “biological change over time” was both more accurate and acceptable (Florida Department of Education news release, October 11, 2005).

That opinion was contested by the Thomas B Fordham Foundation, which in 1998 and then again in 2000 and 2005, blasted Florida’s science education with an F each time.

Would Florida rise from the muck in 2008 and shake off the shame of being at the bottom of the class? State government was pushing hard to attract new science- based industry to the southern sunshine — particularly biotech; companies such as Scripps and Burnham set up shop here. So science education would seem essential for an adequate workforce. Spokesman Russell Schweiss explained then-Governor Jeb Bush’s position somewhat in 2005: Evolution “is a scientific theory and he’s not opposed to it being taught in classrooms, ” Schweiss said. “But he does not think it should necessarily be dictated in the standards” (St Petersburg Times 2005 Dec 25).

Later, fears of a Kansas-style disaster were stoked when Bush filled the position of Florida’s K–12 chancellor with Cheri Yecke. Yecke had angered science educators in her previous job as Minnesota education commissioner as that state was revamping its science education standards (see RNCSE 2007 Sep- Oct; 27 [5–6]: 20–4). By the time Florida’s science education standards review process finally got out of the starting gate, both Bush and Yecke were gone. But apprehension still clouded the air. All but one of the state’s seven board of education members were appointed by Bush. Would they hold the same views as their benefactor? An anxious public would have to wait to find out.

THE PROCESS BEGINS

A committee of 31 “framers”met in May 2007 to begin the process of developing the new standards. The Office of Math and Science (OMS) — a branch of the Florida Department of Education — assembled science educators, business leaders, and private citizens to lay out what should be in the new document. The “framers” heard from nationally recognized experts and examined national and international research. They then created guidelines for the group of 37 “writers”to use in creating the first draft of the new science education standards, which was completed in October 2007. During this process, there were some signs of opposition to evolution’s future role in the standards. Fred Cutting, a retired aerospace engineer, was a framing committee member who stated his objections to evolution. He had no significant impact during the writing process, but he would pop up again in later months as the standards moved closer to a final vote by the Board of Education.

The draft was a significant improvement over the 1996 version in many ways. The subject matter was divided up and presented as “big ideas” that could be explored in depth (in contrast to the old standards’ method of presenting a wide range of scientific concepts that could only be given superficial treatment in the curriculum). One highlight was that evolution was among the standards’ “big ideas”. Various experts, including reviewers who had evaluated Florida’s previous standards for the Fordham Foundation, praised the draft as a huge step forward. So far, the science education standards revision process had moved along smoothly.

OMS posted the draft standards on a website and allowed public comment for 60 days. When the comment period ended in mid- December 2007, the website had logged 262 524 responses (compared to about 43 000 for the recently completed math education standards). Additionally, public hearings were held in Tallahassee, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Miramar. The first ones were relatively quiet and did not attract too much attention. However, the final meeting in February 2008 attracted more than 70 citizens eager to voice their opinions. Despite the fact the new draft of the science education standards covered every aspect of science education in the public schools, all 70 speakers focused just on evolution. News reports estimated that at least 45 speakers opposed evolution.

The real shocker came when several district school boards tried to influence the standards approval process. The first hint of trouble popped up in Polk County when school board member Kay Fields told her local newspaper that she would consult with her superintendent about what their district could do. “There needs to be intelligent design as well, ”Fields said. “You need to show both sides” (Lakeland Ledger 2007 Nov 13). A follow-up story in the paper polled all of the school board members and found that a majority supported Fields’s views (Lakeland Ledger 2007 Nov 20). The issue eventually fizzled out there, with no action taken.

Meanwhile, in the northern reaches of the state, other school boards did take action. In January, Taylor County Superintendent Oscar Howard mentioned at one of the standard’s public hearings that his and several other counties were sending official resolutions to the state board of education encouraging it either to de-emphasize evolution or allow alternatives to be taught. Howard claimed that hundreds of parents threatened to pull their kids out of public schools if the standards were accepted in their current form. Many of the county school boards tried not to make a public fuss over their resolutions. FCS members uncovered these resolutions only after checking numerous local weekly newspapers and board meeting archives. At least 12 counties — the majority in the northern and panhandle areas of the state — passed similar resolutions with nearly identical wording, as illustrated in this resolution approved 5–0 by the Baker County School Board:

Now therefore, be it resolved by the Baker County School Board of Baker County, Macclenny, Florida, that the Board urges the State Board of Education to direct the Florida Department of Education to revise the new Sunshine State Standards for Science such that evolution is not presented as fact.

Another phenomenon in north Florida was a small group of women who, despite their playing up a “we’re just concerned moms” demeanor, obviously knew how to work the system and were well connected. Kim Kendall, a former air traffic controller from Jacksonville, got quite a bit of coverage in local newspapers. She secured spots at several public hearings and forums; even when she was turned away from a hearing in which the standards were not on the agenda, she parlayed it into news coverage.

Among Kendall’s connections were the Florida Family Policy Council and the Florida Baptist State Convention’s newspaper, the Florida Baptist Witness. The Witness gained notoriety in the evolution fight when it broke the news in December 2007 that state board of education member Donna Callaway was opposed to how evolution was presented in the science education standards. Callaway was quoted as saying, “I agree completely that evolution should be taught with all of the research and study that has occurred. However, I believe it should not be taught to the exclusion of other theories of origin of life. ” The article then wrapped up with Callaway commenting: “My hope is that there will be times of prayer throughout Christian homes and churches directed toward this issue. As a SBOE member, I want those prayers. I want God to be part of this. Is not that ironic?” (Florida Baptist Witness 2007 Nov 30).

With one state board member’s opinion finally revealed, a few others also let the public know on which side they stood. Linda Taylor went on the record as sympathetic to the inclusion of alternative theories alongside evolution. “I think kids should have the opportunity to compare different theories, ” she said. Board member Roberto Martinez firmly planted his flag on the pro-evolution side when he said: “I’m a very strong supporter of including evolution. And I think it’s long overdue” (St Petersburg Times 2007 Dec 6).

That two-to-one vote hung in the air for nearly two months until Akshay Desai evened up the score in early February 2008. He publicly supported evolution, but wound up being the last to do so before the February 19 vote. The three other votes remained shrouded in mystery.

THE HEAT BUILDS

The nationally known religious organization Focus on the Family joined the battle in November 2007, encouraging its sympathizers to push the state board of education to include “intelligent design” in the standards. In response, FCS initiated its “All I Want for Christmas is a Good Science Education” campaign. FCS encouraged citizens to send Christmas cards to the state board of education that included short notes in support of good science including evolution.

Evolution reared up in regional politics, too. Bill Foster, a former St Petersburg councilman with aspirations to higher office, sent a letter to his local school board warning against the evils of evolution. “Evolution gives our kids an excuse to believe in natural selection and survival of the fittest, which leads to a belief that they are superior over the weak, ” he wrote. He also connected evolution to Hitler and the Columbine high school shooting (St Petersburg Times 2008 Jan 12).

It seemed that opposition to evolution in the science education standards was overwhelming. But even though the anti-evolution crowd had impressive networking capabilities and could stir up tremendous support from the general public, evolution supporters had resources of their own. Among the organizations that gave support were the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the Florida Academy of Sciences, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Florida members of the Clergy Letter Project. Perhaps more important, the writers and framers did not just walk away when the draft was done. They continued to advocate for the draft standards.

As the issue snowballed, FCS members worked tirelessly to stay out in front. Much of the support for the science education standards was only loosely organized. FCS wound up being the focal point of the coordination effort, but through its activities built an amazing foundation. An FCS petition effort gathered more than 1700 signatures both on paper and on the internet, and attracted many present and past Florida university presidents, prominent scientists, and even the director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. The FCS leadership built and maintained networks of evolution supporters, and FCS members wrote letters, made phone calls, and helped spread the word. The commitment to sustain so much volunteer effort for more than a year was awe-inspiring.

THE FEBRUARY HEARING

Months of suspense finally were coming to an end as the state Board of Education vote neared. But more plot twists were still to come. Fred Cutting, the member of the standards framing committee opposed to evolution, submitted a “minority report” in which he claimed that evolution was being taught “dogmatically”; he recommended several changes, though he had no support from any of the other standards’ framers or writers.

Activist Kim Kendall also reappeared with a last-minute surprise. Not satisfied with the 60- day comment period on the internet or the five public hearings held around the state, she dogged the state board of education members relentlessly for a chance to speak directly to them. The board had made it clear that there would be no public input at the February meeting, but the week before it finally bowed to the pressures and agreed to allow 20 people to speak for three minutes each. Half could sign up to speak in favor of the draft standards and the other half in opposition. Those speakers would have to arrive the morning of the meeting and sign up for the slots first come, first served.

Adding to the stress in the final stretch was a surprising 11th-hour proposed change to the standards. Department of Education officials were nervous that the board would never approve the standards against so much opposition to evolution, so they rushed together a compromise the week before the February 19 meeting and officially announced the modified version on the afternoon of Friday, February 15. Hoping to appease the anti-evolutionists, the board inserted the phrase “scientific theory of” into the standards wherever “evolution” appeared and also in any other mention of scientific theories in the standards (see RNCSE 2008 Mar/Apr; 28 [2]: 4–7). Thus, when the board met, it had three options: (1) to approve the standards as originally written; (2) not to approve the standards at all; or (3) to approve the lastminute “scientific theory of” compromise.

Before the sun even dawned on February 19, I gathered with fellow supporters of the science education standards at the locked doors of the capitol. When the doors were finally opened and we eagerly dashed inside, we were surprised to see opponents of evolution already waiting in line. Despite our asking them about it, they refused to reveal how they got there before the building was opened. All 120 seats were quickly filled, and plenty of people were left standing. Reporters and television cameras packed the room.

Shortly after 9 AM, board chairman T Willard Fair opened with a short speech, which seemed to be aimed at the anti-science crowd. Sometimes he even spoke directly to Kendall, who was sitting in the front row because she was on the list of speakers. He made it clear that the standards public review process was done openly and fairly with several opportunities for everyone to have input. However, Fair said, as he looked right at Kendall, some people wanted to speak directly to the board. He mentioned that Kendall had spoken to some board members in person over the previous few weeks.

The anti-science speakers tried to pull off a “Hail Mary” play by introducing the “academic freedom” ploy — a gambit new to the Florida evolution debate. They presented a proposal to the board that would permit teachers to cast doubt on evolution under the guises of free speech and critical thinking. A document they handed to the board members contained the following suggested wording:

Evolution is [a] fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence and teachers should be permitted to engage students in a critical analysis of that evidence. (As reported in a Florida Family Policy Council news release, 2008 Feb 9).

The word “a” in brackets replaces the word “the” in the original, and the “critical analysis” language was new. Having evolution “dogmatically” alone in the standards stifles critical thinking, they said; it has nothing to do with religious beliefs. Mixed in with the academic freedom push were the standard creationist talking points: gaps in the fossil record, discrimination against some scientists who do not “believe in” Darwin, evolution as a theory in crisis; and macroevolution’s having never been observed. John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council said, “Yet we look at the fossil record and we find rats, and bats, but no transitional forms of “rat-bats. ” Throughout all of their speeches, the main spotlight was on academic freedom, though. Evidence against evolution must be taught!

After a short break, the Office of Math and Science gave a presentation about the standards writing process. Toward the end of that presentation, pro-evolution board member Roberto Martinez seized an opportunity to go on the offensive. He grilled Education Commissioner Eric Smith about the timing and reason for adding “scientific theory of” throughout the document (this version was referred to as Option B). Martinez made it clear that he knew that the changes were made to placate people who oppose evolution in the standards. He asked if the original writers and framers had been consulted. Smith said that an e-mail was sent out to them on Friday afternoon (before the three-day holiday weekend). About 38 of the 68 responded; 29 (76. 3%) opposed Option B, two grudgingly accepted Option B if it were the only way to get the standards approved, and 7 (18. 4%) approved. Martinez was relentless, going on to question if Option B had been vetted by any scientific organizations in the same way the original draft had. The answer was no. “Then why are we even considering them, commissioner?” Martinez asked.

Callaway interrupted the developing debate, pointing out that no motion had been made by the board yet to approve the standards, so this discussion should not be taking place. After a motion to approve Option B was made and seconded, Martinez once again took the lead. He hammered home his point that efforts to undermine evolution have a long history. “No matter how much the current strategy may have evolved over the last 20 years, the DNA is the same with its common ancestor: creationism, ” he said.

Finally, Callaway could not take any more. She asserted that despite her strong religious identity that her stance had nothing to do with religion, but was based on her extensive research. She lamented that the presentation of evolution is too dogmatic, denying students their right to explore the issue for themselves. Option B did not address her concerns, but the “Academic Freedom Proposal” given to the board that morning was the perfect solution. Thousands of people do not agree with evolution, and kids need to be made aware of that.

As other board members stated their opinions, the shape of the debate finally took form. Kathleen Shanahan, Phoebe Raulerson, and Linda Taylor favored Option B. Desai did not like Option B, but was receptive to academic freedom. Fair was the only person to stay completely out of the debate.

Callaway’s academic freedom push never gained traction. But the debate did feature her and Martinez coming to verbal blows toward the end. Martinez insisted that Option B’s whole intent was to single out evolution. “Scientific theory of evolution as opposed to what other theory?” he asked. “No matter how the issue is cloaked, we know what this is really about. ” Callaway responded: “I take issue with the fact that you say you know where that’s all coming from. I have not heard from a single person who is advocating creationism or intelligent design at all. ”

Martinez would not be swayed, though, pressing the question of what alternative theory was out there. Callaway answered by trying once again to sell academic freedom. Kids need to explore the issue because there are such great differences of opinion about evolution in the world. “If they come up with another theory, so be it. So be it. ” She then seized on Martinez’s insistence that there were no other theories, trying hang him with his own words, which she seemed to think would show him to be dogmatic and against critical thinking. She failed. “Respectfully, Donna, it is not a point of debate or controversy in the mainstream scientific community, ”

Martinez said, getting in the final jab of the duel as his supporters in the crowd erupted in loud applause, drowning out whatever Callaway tried to say in response. Fair then stepped in to scold the audience for its outburst.

THE FINAL VOTE

While Martinez and Callaway cooled off, Fair wisely cut short further discussion and called for a vote. Fair, Taylor, Shanahan and Raulerson voted yes to Option B, resulting in the adoption of the “scientific theory of” language. Ironically, Martinez and Desai joined Callaway in opposing the option. Florida now had a new set of science education standards. Martinez and Desai had voted no as a protest against Option B. They both believed that the original version, written and vetted by experts, was better. Option B watered down the standards for no valid scientific or educational reason. FCS and many educators and scientists agreed. But it is worth keeping in mind that the new science education standards are still a huge improvement over the 1996 version. Florida schools and students had won the day.

Callaway voted no because her whole mission had been to get the “Academic Freedom Proposal” on the table. But her efforts floundered. No one can say for sure why; maybe because academic freedom arrived too late on the stage. Perhaps other board members found the proposal distasteful because it was so obviously focused solely on evolution. Whatever the reason, it can be said with a sigh of relief that Florida dodged a bullet. Sound science would be taught in the Sunshine State.

Unfortunately, Tallahassee was right back in the crosshairs a month later. Picking up where Callaway had left off, state lawmakers took up two proposed “academic freedom” bills aimed boldly and squarely at evolution. FCS was forced to get right back to work, and these bills failed to pass in the 2008 session (see here, and a report in a future issue of RNCSE). There is no doubt, however, that this saga is to be continued.

About the Author(s): 
Brandon Haught
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
ncseoffice@ncseweb.org

Brandon Haught is the communications director for Florida Citizens for Science. His day job is that of a spokesperson for a sheriff’s office, but he is also attending college at night with the hope of becoming a science teacher a few years down the road.