Published February 15, 2007
TOPEKA, Kansas – The Kansas state Board of Education on Tuesday repealed science guidelines questioning evolution that had made the state an object of international ridicule.
The new guidelines reflect mainstream scientific views of evolution and represent a political defeat for advocates of "intelligent design," who had helped write the standards that are being jettisoned.
The intelligent design concept holds that life is so complex that it must have been created by a higher authority.
The state has had five sets of standards in eight years, with anti- and pro-evolution versions, each doomed by the seesawing fortunes of socially conservative Republicans and a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats.
Moderate Republicans captured two seats from conservatives last year, paving the way for Tuesday's 6-4 vote.
The board Tuesday removed language suggesting that key evolutionary concepts — such as a common origin for all life on Earth and change in species creating new ones — were controversial and being challenged by new research.
Also approved was a new definition of science, specifically limiting it to the search for natural explanations of what is observed in the universe.
"Those standards represent mainstream scientific consensus about both what science is and what evolution is," said Jack Krebs, a math and technology teacher who helped write the new guidelines. He is also president of Kansas Citizens for Science.
The state uses its standards to develop tests that measure how well students are learning science. Although decisions about what is taught in classrooms remain with 296 local school boards, both sides in the evolution dispute say the standards will influence teachers as they try to ensure that their students test well.
The board's conservative minority said the new standards will limit the information students get about evolution.
"There seems to be a pattern," said board member Steve Abrams. "Anything that might question the veracity of evolution is deleted."
While conservatives said after Tuesday's vote they weren't planning to reopen the debate even if elections go their way in 2008, state law will require another review of the standards by 2014.
Another shift in power is possible. The latest science standards are the fifth for the state in eight years.
"I think we're good for two years," said board member Janet Waugh, a Kansas City Democrat who supported the new standards. "Who knows what the election will hold in two years?"
Some scientists and science groups believed the board's latest action was significant because it turned back a subtle attack on evolution that encouraged schools to teach about an evolution "controversy," rather than mandating that creationism or intelligent design be taught.
Many Kansans harbor religious objections and other misgivings about evolution. The Intelligent Design Network presented petitions with almost 4,000 signatures, opposing the standards the board eventually adopted.
John Calvert, a retired attorney who helped found the group, accused the board of promoting atheism. And Greg Lassey, a retired Wichita-area biology teacher, said the new standards undermine families by "discrediting parents who reject materialism and the ethics and morals it fosters."
There have been debates or legal battles in several other states over evolution and the intelligent design argument, but none has inspired comedians' jokes or parodies like Kansas' ongoing battle has.
Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" had a four-part "Evolution Schmevolution" series in 2005, and hearings that year drew journalists from Canada, France, Britain and Japan.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat re-elected last year, cited embarrassment caused by the board's past decisions on evolution as a reason to strip it of its power to set education policy.
The board's vote came a day after the 198th anniversary of Darwin's birth, which the University of Kansas celebrated with a costume party and a showing of a pro-evolution documentary, "Flock of Dodos."