For Roseville Schools, Darwin Debate Rolls On

Laurel Rosen
Sacramento Bee
May 6, 2004
Print ArticleOriginal Article

The debate over teaching Charles Darwin's theory to Roseville high school students continues to evolve.

The latest discussion involves a parent's proposal for science teachers to introduce arguments against evolution when they teach evidence in its favor.

The suggestion hasn't won the support of Roseville Joint Union High School District trustees.

Headed for a vote, however, is a compromise version that says teachers would be expected to present arguments against evolution but could decide how to teach perceived weaknesses in the theory. A date for trustees to take up this modified proposal has not been set.

"What you've put before us requires the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job," school board President Dean Forman told the crowd that gathered at Tuesday's meeting to debate evolution instruction.

Forman then introduced what he described as a compromise between parents who want arguments against evolution presented in biology classes and teachers who say there are no scientific arguments against Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Working off the recommendation by Granite Bay parent Larry Caldwell, Forman's version also would require a note to be sent to parents explaining that evolution would be taught in a non-dogmatic fashion and for school libraries to devote a section to materials arguing for and against evolution.

The proposal pleased Caldwell, but frustrated teachers.

"I feel, and the majority of teachers feel, that we're back at square one," said Chet Dickson, a biology teacher at Granite Bay High School.

"Because the information and the materials aren't scientific, it's not a compromise. You either include non-scientific materials or you don't. And in a science class, we don't include non-scientific, non-empirically based material."

Caldwell, who has a child at Granite Bay High School, said legitimate scientists are debating the merits of the theory of evolution and he is not proposing teaching of religion in the schools.

His original proposal did not specify the instructional materials to be used, but he has said he hoped to introduce certain information if his proposal passed.

But it did not receive enough support to earn a vote from the board Tuesday. Trustee Kelly Lafferty moved for approval, but none of the trustees seconded the motion.

When Forman suggested the compromise, Jim Joiner was the only trustee to vote against bringing the modified proposal back for a vote.

"This is the never-ending story," Joiner said. "This is going to go on and on, and we're going to have evolution discussions forever. We are not going to have discussions about our bond measure, our curriculum or our overcrowding."

Roseville would be the first district in California, Caldwell said, to ask teachers to present arguments about evolution.

"I say that's a great thing - let's lead the state, let's not be a follower," he said.

Others who track anti-evolution activity around the nation said the Ohio board of education has passed a similar policy and one is being considered by Minnesota state educators.

Forman's proposal came after more than three hours of discussion in the Oakmont High School cafeteria, where more than 200 people gathered. Parents and community members were divided on whether the schools should teach arguments against evolution, while students and teachers spoke emphatically against the proposal.

By the end of the night, some audience members began shouting at trustees:

"Recall the school board!" said one person.

"You've already wasted enough time and money on this," said another.

District officials said they have spent more than $25,000 in legal fees and a few hundred staff hours addressing the debate.

The issue emerged last summer when Caldwell objected to a biology text being approved by the school board. He said the book was flawed because it excludes criticisms of evolution.

Seeking what he described as balanced science instruction, Caldwell introduced supplemental instructional materials. He showed science teachers a series of videos and written materials highlighting perceived weaknesses in the evolution theory.

For example, the materials stated, similarities between species - such as having five digits on each limb - do not necessarily indicate a common ancestor. Another example concerned perceived problems with fossil evidence.

Science teachers considered the materials, sent them to several universities for review, and decided that the lessons were not appropriate for their classrooms. Caldwell responded by saying the scientists consulted are biased and moved on to propose his districtwide policy.

Neither his policy nor his proposed supplements mention God or religion, but Caldwell's critics say he is fueled by his Christian faith.

"In the interest of protecting the separation of church and state, I would request that this issue be put to rest because the materials being requested are religious in nature," parent Maya Tagore-Erwin told the board.

Caldwell, who has said some of his opponents are motivated by atheism, said the public outcry amounts to misinformed hysteria.

"All we're trying to do is to help our students develop critical thinking skills with regard to biology," Caldwell said. "Why can't high-schoolers debate biology in biology class?"

Biology teachers say there is no scientific debate to be had over the theory of evolution.

"It's still an issue that they're saying we've got to teach strengths and weaknesses," said Kendra Grinsell, chairwoman of Woodcreek High School's science department. "It wouldn't be a theory if there were weaknesses."