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Kansans Brace for Fight over Evolution in 2005

As predicted, the balance of power on the Kansas Board of Education [Link is broken] tilted in favor of anti-evolutionists after the November 2, 2004, election. When Kathy Martin replaces Bruce Wyatt on the District 6 seat on the board, the anti-evolution faction will have a 6-4 majority. (The anti-evolutionists on the current board are Steve Abrams, Ken Willard, John Bacon, Iris Van Meter, and Connie Morris.) Thus, with the new board convening in January 2005, Kansans are braced for a reprise of 1999's battle over the place of evolution in the state's science standards.

The election

Following the primary election, in which incumbent Bruce Wyatt, a supporter of evolution education, lost his party's nomination to Kathy Martin, who supports teaching "alternatives" to evolution, the only contested seat in the general election was in District 4, where incumbent Democrat Bill Wagnon, a supporter of evolution education, faced Republican Robert Meissner. During the campaign, Meissner was cagey about his views on evolution education, saying, for example, that if elected he would not oppose the inclusion of "other scientifically credible theories" in addition to evolution, but not going so far as to endorse teaching "intelligent design."

The race was a squeaker. The Lawrence Journal-World reported: "Bill Wagnon went to bed thinking he might have lost a bid for his third term on the State Board of Education. But Wagnon, a Democrat, awoke Wednesday a 2600-vote winner ... Wagnon's victory over Meissner, a Topeka dentist, was in doubt until the last precinct was reported in Douglas County. Meissner's early lead dropped to only 70 votes before results from that last precinct swept it away. The final tally was 59,681, or 51 percent, for Wagnon, to 57,032, or 49 percent, for Meissner."

Hoping to avert the expected battle over the place of evolution in the state science standards, now under revision, Wagnon proposed that the board establish state standards for elective courses in religion; fellow board member Janet Waugh explained, "I see [such classes] as a golden opportunity to introduce all the various forms of creationism, intelligent design because they're all based on faith." But the proposal failed to attract support.

The standards

In 1999, under the influence of young-earth creationists, the Kansas Board of Education adopted a set of science standards in which evolution and related concepts were absent. The decision attracted wide attention, with media reacting with shock, amusement, and ridicule, and scientific and educational organizations condemning the board's decision. In the subsequent election, three of the four antievolution incumbents lost their party's nomination, and the new board voted 7-3 to restore evolution to the standards.

Standards are subject to periodic review, and since early June 2004, a committee of twenty-six scientists, teachers, and ordinary citizens appointed by the board has been working to bring the standards up to date. The committee has finished a first draft of the standards, which are to be discussed in four public meetings to be held around the state in January 2005. The committee will then revise the standards in mid-February; the second draft will be submitted for external review and a final recommendation from the review committee in April or May. A final draft will be voted on by the board in June.

A few advocates of "intelligent design" creationism are on the committee, and the topic of including "intelligent design" in the curriculum was reportedly [Link is broken] broached, but according to Steve Case -- a co-chairman of the committee and a research assistant professor at the University of Kansas Center for Science in Education and Center for Research on Learning -- "The feeling of the committee is that intelligent design is not ready to be included in mainstream science."

The board looks at the first draft

On December 14, 2004, the first draft [Link is broken] of the revised science standards was received by the board, not with unalloyed enthusiasm. According to the Topeka Capitol-Journal (registration required), board member John Bacon complained that the opinions of supporters of teaching creationism and intelligent design as theory alongside evolution were ignored.

Also discussed was a "minority report," submitted by eight members of the board, working with John Calvert, managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, who is not himself on the committee. The minority report criticizes the first draft for promoting a "naturalistic" definition of science and for not sufficiently encouraging students "to critically analyze the theory of biological evolution." Some board members argued that the minority report should have been incorporated in the first draft.

Nevertheless, the first draft of the standards, as submitted, was accepted by the board. An editorial [Link is broken] in the Wichita Eagle advised the board not to monkey with the standards:

Evolution, like it or not, is a bedrock of modern science, in fields as diverse as paleontology and human genome research. It has revolutionized science and our understanding of the world. Every student should know and understand it -- regardless of whether they personally believe it. ... But the most "scientific" of the creationist theories, intelligent design, has little support in the mainstream scientific community. So why would we teach it in our science classrooms?

As in 1999, NCSE is working with concerned Kansans -- especially those at Kansas Citizens for Science, whose advocacy on behalf of evolution education was so effective in the past -- to help to ensure that evolution education in the Sunflower State remains uncompromised.