New York Times
August 25, 1999

School Districts in Kansas Split on Evolution Ruling


TOPEKA, Kan. -- Sitting at their students' desks two days before the start of the new school year, four high school biology teachers here were hashing over the vote of the Kansas Board of Education earlier this month: to delete virtually any mention of evolution from the state's recommended science curriculum and its standardized tests.

The teachers' reaction was as swift as it was unanimous: they would continue to teach science as they have been, with the support of their superintendent. "They'll get evolution here," said Elaine Pardee, who teaches at Washburn Rural High, where the science classroom walls are lined with various animal skeletons that, by their very appearance, testify to the evolutionary theory of a common ancestor among mammals. "We're not going to cheat our kids."

Science teachers in the Auburn-Washburn school district in Topeka, Kan., like Elaine Pardee and Dennis Ary, say the teaching of science without referring to evolution is incomplete, so they will include it.

About 200 miles away in Pratt, a small town west of Wichita, the local school board president, Willa Beth Mills, had a very different reaction to the state board's action. She applauded it, and said she hoped that it would lead to elements of creationism -- or at least a heavy dose of skepticism about the theory of evolution -- being injected into her district's schools. "I don't think it's relegated to Sunday school," Mrs. Mills said. "If you present the material to students with critical thinking, and they come to you with a paper supporting creationism, or arguing against evolutionary theory from a creationist point of view, you should accept that."

These are emotionally volatile and exceptionally confusing days for the teachers, principals and parents of Kansas's public school children. Two weeks after the board's vote, which was widely interpreted as establishing an important national beachhead for creationists, the theater of battle has shifted to the state's 304 public school districts. Because the adoption of standards in science or any other subject cannot be dictated under state law, it will be up to each district to decide whether to follow the lead of the state board, which issues guidelines suggesting what should be taught in the state's classrooms. What the state board can control is the content of its standardized tests.

Beginning in the 2000-2001 school year, the state tests in 7th- and 10th-grade science will not ask students questions about the theories that multiple species have evolved from a common ancestor and that the universe originated in an explosion, or big bang, two ideas that have come under sharp attack from those who have found more persuasive evidence of the world's origins in religion as in science. (Questions about "microevolution," defined in the state guidelines as changes in an organism's "structure, function or behavior," will remain.)

At issue for Kansans is nothing less than reconciling two central explanations of life: the Darwinian theory that man and monkey gradually branched off of the same family tree millions of years ago as they adjusted to a changing environment, a contention heavily rooted in scientific evidence, and the creationist belief that a divine being has been pulling the biological levers of the universe, including the origin of man, as described in the Bible.

The debate concerns more than what public school students should learn about each point of view, more than a decade after the Supreme Court said states could not compel the teaching of creationism. For science teachers, the state board's characterization of evolution as a theory shrouded in doubt -- no matter the supporting testimony of fossils and genetic codes -- has raised worries about whether other theories at the heart of science, like those concerning atoms or even gravity, will come under attack next.

"If you take away evolution because it's a theory, you can't teach science," said Steve Angel, a chemistry professor who is the president of the Auburn-Washburn school board in Topeka and a member of the committee of experts whose standards were rewritten by the state board. "All of science is theory."

Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, has been among the most vocal critics of the state board, whose 10 members are elected and are outside of his control. He argues that the six-member majority that rewrote the standards in just a few hours, ripping out whole pages of a document that had been drafted over nearly two years by a committee of 27 scientists and science teachers, did so to make a rhetorical splash at the behest of the conservative wing of the state Republican Party.

"There are 304 locally elected school boards who have the option to tell the state board to go jump in the lake," said Mike Matson, a spokesman for the Governor, who is on vacation this week. "The Governor is confident the overwhelming number will."

Not so in Pratt, a town of about 7,000. At the urging of a group of parents, the school board arranged a presentation earlier this month from a local wildlife biologist about a book titled "Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins." The book -- first printed in 1989 by Haughton Publishing of Dallas and since sold to public schools in more than a dozen states -- suggests that "intelligent design," as engineered by an "intelligent agent," may be a more compelling explanation than biological evolution for the wide variety found in nature.

While the book stops well short of identifying God as the designer, as creationists might, critics, including those affiliated with the National Association of Biology Teachers, have condemned the book as little more than an artfully worded end-run around the Constitutional separation of church and state in the classroom.

But to Chris Mammoliti, a biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Parks who presented the book to the Pratt board, "Of Pandas and People" and its theory provide the perfect antidote to those teachers who might be tempted to teach evolution as an undisputed fact. "I see the theory as saying, 'It is legitimate to have, as part of the tool kit for science education, the option to say that the things we see in nature may be designed or could have been designed,' " he said. "It doesn't speculate or presuppose that there is a creator or miracles involved."

Mrs. Mills, the board president in Pratt, said the book is now under consideration as a supplement to the district science curriculum, which was already being rewritten at the time of the state board vote. Administrators in Pratt said that Mrs. Mills' position on the standards has not prompted anyone to tell district officials they would pull their children out of the school system.

In Auburn-Washburn, one of five school districts in Topeka, the board president, Angel, and the superintendent, Howard Shuler, have pledged that there will no change in the district science standards in response to the state board vote. (Shuler said that only one parent of the district's 5,000 students had written to criticize the district stance, and none had threatened to pull children out of district schools.)

Ninth-grade biology students at Washburn Rural will be introduced to Darwin and evolution over three to five days in the spring semester, after they have gone through rites of high school biology like dissecting a rat and a sheep's heart. The textbook used in the ninth grade, "Biology: Visualizing Life," published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Austin, Tex., explains that "monkeys, apes and humans are examples of primates" and argues that "primates most likely evolved from small, insect-eating rodentlike mammals that lived about 60 millions years ago."

Ms. Pardee, who has taught biology at Washburn Rural for nine years, tells her students that evolution "is the most currently acceptable scientific explanation that we have," but adds that her students "don't have to believe it." What she insists is that her students "know what the facts of the theory are." Though they might be able to pass the new state science test without such knowledge, she says, the material is covered in the standardized science test for the district and the advanced placement test in biology.

When the inevitable question from a student arises about creationism, usually couched in a biblical reference, Kevin Bordewick, another biology teacher at Washburn Rural, said he cuts off such discussions, believing they are better suited to a humanities class or the home. "It's between them, their parents and whatever God they believe in, if any," Bordewick said.

Though Bordewick and his colleagues at Washburn said they would never introduce their personal beliefs into the classroom, other teachers said drawing such a thick line was nearly impossible. Joyce Depenbusch, who teaches 7th- and 8th-grade science in Skyline, in Pratt County, says she believes that "evolution and creation don't have to be mutually exclusive."

While Mrs. Depenbusch says she does not "present the science of creationism in my classroom," she says she was not opposed to telling her students about her beliefs, as long as she prefaced her comments "very heavily" with a warning that the ideas were her own. "Evolution is a theory," she said. "We can present several different theories to help them think. Let them do some thinking with the help of their families. Then let them make up their own minds."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company