The Texas Board of Education will decide whether to scrap a requirement that public schools teach high school students to scrutinize "all sides" of scientific theory after hearing Tuesday from academics who say that was meant to water down lessons on evolution and leave students wondering whether God created the universe.
Supporters of the existing high school science curriculums told the board that changing the rule could hurt independent thought in classrooms across America's second-largest state.
How Texas teaches its 5.3-plus million public school students evolution has been a flashpoint for years, despite federal courts rulings against teaching creationism and the similar theory of intelligent design in public schools. The standards govern what teachers cover in classrooms, topics on standardized tests and the material published in textbooks statewide. Texas is one of the nation's largest textbook purchasers, so changes publishers make to meet the state's curriculum standards can wind up altering contact in textbooks sold around the U.S.
In 2009, the Board of Education dropped a then-20-year-old requirement directing science classes to teach "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory of evolution and added a requirement that students learn to scrutinize "all sides" of scientific theory. A panel of Texas teachers and experts is recommending the board of 10 Republicans and five Democrats remove that language, saying it is confusing and time-consuming for students and unnecessarily allows religious and conservative ideology to trump science.
The board heard hours of testimony Tuesday and will hold preliminary votes on the standards later this week.
"The establishment of our educational goals should not be based on opinion polls," Arturo De Lozanne, a molecular bioscience professor at the University of Texas, told the board.
A testy moment came when former teacher Tanya Estes urged removing "creationism from our science curriculum." David Bradley, a Republican board member from Beaumont pressed her to "please cite" where "creationism" appears. Estes responded by questioning Bradley's "mocking smiling."
The standards do not specifically mention creationism, but critics say they have the practical effect of challenging evolution. Besides the "all sides" language, expert panels also have recommend removing teaching about gaps in the fossil record that religious conservatives argue show significant changes to life itself that could suggest the influence of a higher power.
Republican board member Barbara Cargill noted that many oil and gas sector leaders have urged that the fossil record be taught in Texas classrooms.
"Their big thing is: Our kids need to learn more about the fossil record and they need to question things that are out there," said Cargill, of The Woodlands in suburban Houston. "If there is a question, then they need to know about that."
Ray Bohlin, a science fellow for the Discovery Institute—a group that promotes intelligent design, which holds that certain features of life forms are so complex that they can best be explained by an origin from an intelligent higher power—said removing the current standards could mean "evolution gets a free pass."
"There are some very real ideological objections to any evidence that could be construed as compromising to evolution," Bohlin said. "And I think that's behind a lot of this."
How the board will vote remains unclear, but Bradley said after the hearing that he's not expecting major changes to the science curriculum.
"I can count," he said, referring to the Republican majority. "It'll be a Republican vote, though there'll be some harping and whining."
Explore further: Texas education board approves science standards (Update)