Either Texas State Board of Education members have too much time on their hands or certain members are just as eager to keep creationism a part of the state science curriculum this time around.
The State Board of Education is currently revising the Texas Essential Skills and Knowledge requirements for science, and so far board members have pushed state education agency officials to expand the board and add panelists who reflect their own anti-evolution views. During the board's recent meeting board members and panelists questioned the biology panel of educators and academics about removing anything that backs up the creationist view of evolution, according to the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan public education watchdog group.
This whole thing is tied to the board's epic culture wars back in 2009. The state's science curriculum was the subject of a fierce battle between those on the board who were pushing to include creationism as a scientific explanation of how humans came to be here versus those who were fighting to make sure the board didn't toss out Darwinian evolution altogether.
The end result of all the bickering on the board was a set of science Texas Essential Skills and Knowledge so long, detailed and unwieldy that teachers had trouble getting through the curriculum over the course of the school year, so thus the board decided to revisit the TEKS this year to make the requirements a little more manageable, as we've previously reported.
Or at least that's the official reason the board is "streamlining" the biology TEKS.
However, judging by the behavior of some of the board members so far, there's still a faction of the board intent on keeping anti-evolution options and caveats a part of the biology curriculum requirements.
One of the board members, Barbara Cargill, lobbied hard to get one of her candidates appointed to the biology panel, according to emails obtained by the Texas Freedom Network. Charles Garner, a chemistry professor and a noted evolution denier, was added at the last minute to the biology panel.
How did that happen? In July Cargill contacted Monica Martinez with the Texas Education Agency via email instructing Martinez to put Garner on the panel.
"I turned his name in before the deadline plus he was one of our 7 experts for the last big science revision. He knows the TEKS and his knowledge of chemistry will round out the panel nicely since that is a huge part of biology," Cargill wrote, apparently without a hint of irony. "It is confusing to me why he was not chosen in the first place. I think the Chair will approve one more person to be on the panel."
Martinez responded, politely explaining why Garner wasn't put on the panel.
"As I am sure you recall, it is incredibly difficult to build committees to ensure we address all necessary factors including the appropriate expertise, equitable representation among board members, and appropriate representation of the state's demographics," Martinez wrote. "Staff notes indicate that Dr. Garner's application did not show any biology experience while many other applications included a significant amount of biology experience and more specifically experience teaching high school biology."
Martinez finished off her point by benignly observing that the TEA was not told to give preference to any particular board member's nomination. Cargill wasn't the only board member asking to add people to the panel, Martinez noted, and said the chair of the board had instructed her to put these requested committee members on a list as alternates.
"If we begin adding additional individuals upon request at this point in the process we run the risk of the committees growing beyond a manageable size, exceeding our budget and throwing off the balance of overall board member representation," she wrote.
Still, Garner ended up on the panel in the end.
From the anti-evolution standpoint, Cargill's move paid off. During last week's board meeting in Austin, an evolution opponent, Ray Bohlin of Probe Ministries in Plano complained one panel voted this summer to streamline the high school biology standards in part by removing items designed to challenge the science of evolution. Bohlin serves on the same panel with Garner, noted Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network, in an open letter to the board.
State board members had added those anti-evolution items when they approved new science curriculum standards in 2009, ignoring objections from scientists and educators at the time. Several state board members joined in criticizing the biology panel for removing the anti-evolution language from the standards, according to Miller's letter. Also, some of the board members claimed that not including creationism will supposedly stop students from asking questions in science class.
All of this prompted Miller to sound off to the board in a public letter late last week. In the letter Miller stated she felt the board was going after the biology panel. "A number of state board members seemed willing to call into question their objectivity and professionalism based on hearsay from one individual," Miller wrote.
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She also took issue with what Bohlin claimed had happened when the TEKS biology panel met to work on cutting down on what teachers are required to cover in the class. Garner and Bohlin argued to keep TEKS standards for biology that challenge evolution but the pair were voted down 6-2.
The whole thing would be patently ridiculous hilarious if it weren't so familiar.
It was tempting to think of the culture wars as a thing of the past — the board hadn't stopped being Republican-dominated or anything, we just got optimistic about life — but it looks like we thought too soon on this one.
The panel meets again next week and the board will take up the science standards at its November meeting, with a final vote set for January.