AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas State Board of Education meets this week for the first time under its conservative new chairwoman appointed by Gov. Rick Perry and is expected to rekindle the debate over teaching evolution and the origin of life in public schools.
Perry, who is considering a run for president and has embraced social conservatives in Texas, named Barbara Cargill chairwoman earlier this month. Cargill, a biology teacher considered to be one of the more conservative board members, disputes the theory of evolution and voted to require that the theory's weaknesses be taught in classrooms.
An intense fight over evolution and intelligent design theory in science curriculum put a national spotlight on the 15-member elected board in 2009 when it adopted standards that encourage public schools to scrutinize "all sides" of scientific theory.
The board is now considering supplemental online instructional materials that fit under those standards and could be used as early as August when classes resume. The new materials are necessary because the state could not afford to buy new textbooks this year, leaving students to use some that are several years old.
One group, Texans for a Better Science Education, has put out a call to pack Thursday's public hearing with testimony urging board members to adopt materials that question Charles Darwin's theory on the origin of life. A vote is scheduled Friday.
Board member Thomas Ratliff suggests anti-evolution groups will find it difficult to rally votes to their side.
"The young-earth, creationist crowd lost a vote in the last election, now they are looking for two votes," he said.
The supplement materials submitted for consideration include a high school biology e-book that promotes intelligent design despite federal court rulings against teaching the theory that life on Earth is so complex that it must have come from an intelligent higher power.
Supplemental materials that are approved will have the advantage of being on the state's recommended list, but school districts can still buy other materials they chose.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that advocates religious freedom and sides with mainstream science teachers on evolution, said she has been expecting another round of debate over evolution.
"The right-wing faction of the State Board of Education will make every effort to put their personal and political beliefs in science instruction," Miller said. "The strategy is to use junk science to undermine evolution."
The board has been known to make controversial moves. It adopted a social studies and history curriculum last year that amended or watered down the teaching of religious freedoms, the civil rights movement, America's relationship with the United Nations and hundreds of other items.
In one of the most significant changes, the board diluted the rationale for the separation of church and state in a high school government class. The ideological debate over the guidelines drew intense scrutiny beyond Texas.
Cargill was elected to the board in 2004 and is up for re-election in 2012. Her tenure is already off to a rocky start with some of her fellow Republicans after her comments earlier this month that the board has only six "true" conservative Christians. There are 11 Republicans on the board.
"Right now, there are six true conservative Christians on the board, so we have to fight for two votes. In previous years, we had to fight for one vote to get a majority," Cargill said during a July 7 meeting of the conservative group Texas Eagle Forum.
She told the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News her comments were meant for a particular audience and "were not intended to be divisive."
Cargill, through a spokeswoman at the Texas Education Agency, declined an interview request from The Associated Press.
"It's an unfortunate start to her tenure," said board member Ratliff, who is considered one of the moderate Republicans on the board. "To continue to draw battle lines, I don't think it's moving in the right direction to restore the public's confidence in the board."
He dismissed Cargill's comments. "To be honest I could care less if she thinks I'm a conservative or a Christian," Ratliff told the AP. "I don't do either one for her."
Cargill isn't the first board leader to be involved in controversy. After the evolution debate in 2009, the Texas Senate rejected former chairman Don McLeroy's appointment amid complaints that the conservative advocated teaching creationism in public schools. The move was a rare rebuke of Perry's appointment powers.