A "clean break from creationism" in Ohio


At its October 10, 2006, meeting, the Ohio state board of education decided, by a 14-3 vote, to "discharge" a committee from the task of considering whether it was necessary to replace "critical analysis of evolution" language that the board removed from the state science standards and model lesson plans in February 2006. The significance of the vote, in the words of the Columbus Dispatch (October 11, 2006), is that the board "pulled the plug on its seemingly incessant debate over Darwin's theory of evolution" -- a debate that began in 2002, with the development of Ohio's state science standards.

In 2002, Ohio adopted a set of science standards including a requirement that students be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." When the indicator was introduced, it was widely feared that it would provide a pretext for the introduction of creationist misrepresentations of evolution. In 2004, those fears proved to be justified, when, over the protests of the state's scientific community, the board adopted a corresponding model lesson plan that clearly sought to instill scientifically unwarranted doubts about evolution.

Following the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover and the revelation that the board ignored criticisms of the lesson plan from experts at the Ohio Department of Education, the board reversed its decision, voting in February 2006 to remove the "critical analysis" indicator from the standards and to rescind the lesson plan. At the same time, however, the board charged its Achievement Committee to "consider whether the deleted model lesson, Benchmark H and Indicator 23 should be replaced by a different lesson, benchmark, and indicator, and if so, to present any recommendation to the entire State Board for adoption."

"Intelligent design" supporters began work on replacements, starting with a proposal to have students "debate" not only evolution but also global warming and stem cell research. A less contentious curriculum-wide template, which did not specifically list evolution as a topic for debate, followed, but critics argued that the history of "debate" proposals during the development of the lesson plan -- originally entitled "The Great Macroevolution Debate" in one draft -- indicated that the template was similarly intended to portray evolution as scientifically controversial.

Although these proposed replacements were a regular source of controversy, they were developed without any authority from the board; the Achievement Committee never offered a recommendation to the board about whether any replacement was necessary and, in the view of many, was dragging its heels in the fear that the board would vote against any replacement. Finally, however, after the committee's September 11, 2006, meeting, at which the template was not considered, James L. Craig, co-chair of the committee, promised to kill the "critical analysis" effort, according to Lynn Elfner of the Ohio Academy of Science (as reported in the Canton Repository, October 10, 2006.)

At the committee's October 9, 2006, meeting, however, the template was not even on the agenda and so "critical analysis" was still alive, despite Craig's reported promise. Patricia Princehouse of Ohio Citizens for Science told the Canton Repository (October 10, 2006), "He sandbagged all of us." Confiding "I really don't care for the template," Craig cited the committee's inability to arrive at a consensus as the reason for the failure to vote on the template. Steve Rissing offered a different explanation: Craig "probably feared he would lose the election if he openly moved the template forward, so he made reassuring noises to scientists while claiming ignorance of the progress the template was making."

On October 10, 2006, the second day of the board of education's monthly meeting, supporters of the integrity of evolution education turned out in force, armed with copies of the Repository's article printed on bright yellow paper to catch the attention of members of the board and those attending the meeting, and prepared to use the public comment period to criticize the board for its inaction. As it happened, however, board member Martha Wise, who led February's effort to remove the "critical analysis" language, proposed to discharge the Achievement Committee from any further responsibilities concerning possible replacments from that language. Seconded by Rob Hovis, the motion passed 14-3.

After the vote, Wise told the Columbus Dispatch (October 11, 2006), "It was time to move on." Princehouse thanked the board, saying, "I'm deeply impressed by the leadership and courage of the board with making a clean break from creationism." Similarly, the Dispatch seemed to assume that the controversy over evolution was finally over, headlining its story, "State education board drops evolution debate." However, Achievement Committee co-chair Michael Cochran, angered at the decision, indicated that the battle was not over as far as he was concerned, saying, "I will guarantee you that as long as I am chair of the committee, it's gonna be on the agenda next month."