Policy Resolved on Origin of Life

Original article

Columbus – The State Board of Education yesterday unanimously adopted a set of science standards that makes Ohio the first state to require students to examine criticisms of biological evolution.

But board members also agreed to a last-minute disclaimer stating that their action should not be construed as support for the controversial concept of intelligent design, the idea that life had to be guided by a higher power.

Without the disclaimer, at least a half-dozen board members had intended to vote against the standards because they feared it would give schools a green light to bring religion and philosophy into science classes.

The compromise effectively ends a tumultuous, yearlong debate on how to best teach the origin and development of life.

That debate made Ohio the flashpoint in a battle between supporters and critics of Charles Darwin’s theory that life evolved through natural processes – a battle that has raged since the “monkey trial” of biology teacher John Scopes 77 years ago.

“Clearly, it was being misrepresented by adults fighting their own battles and using these standards to fight their own battles,” said board member Joseph Roman of Fairview Park, who introduced the disclaimer the board adopted yesterday.

The state academic standards don’t dictate what local school districts teach, but they provide a powerful incentive by outlining what students must know by the time they graduate. While intelligent design will not be on the new 10th-grade graduation tests, evolution will.

Local districts that decide to teach intelligent design also could face a legal challenge, said Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. She said intelligent design is a form of creationism, and courts have ruled that teaching creationism is unconstitutional in public schools.

“If any school district implements the teaching of intelligent design, the ACLU will act swiftly,” Link said. “Our concern is this gives local districts a false green light.”

Board members traveled here Sunday sharply divided on how to come to grips with the issue. The disclaimer that emerged resulted from an 11th-hour compromise fashioned by board members Martha Wise of Avon – a staunch evolutionist – and Deborah Owens Fink of Richfield, who led the charge to bring evolution alternatives to Ohio classrooms.

“Neither side got what they wanted, totally,” Wise said. “But this is a win-win.”

Stephen Meyer of the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute in Seattle, called the board’s action “historic.” Already, intelligent design organizers have set up shop in New Mexico, which will soon be drafting its own science standards.

“This represents an important milestone in the effort to ensure that students learn the full range of relevent scientific evidence,” Meyer said.

But the disclaimer satisfied most evolutionists.

“The board made a clear statement and said ‘no’ to pseudo-science,” said Patricia Princehouse, a Case Western Reserve University professor and a board member of Ohio Citizens for Science.

The new standards will help Ohio recover from the black eye it received two years ago when a national study gave it a failing grade for not even mentioning evolution in its science standards. Retired California physicist Lawrence Lerner, who headed the study, said Ohio would have received an ‘A’ this time had it not made a point of singling out evolution for critical analysis. Instead, it will get a ‘B’ or a ‘C,’ ” he said yesterday.

“Ohio has the opportunity of leaping from the bottom of the heap to a par with excellent state standards,” Lerner said. “The compromise would place Ohio in the mediocre middle.” 

© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.