The Texas State Board of Education has been wrangling over evolution for months now. Recently, board members spent two full days squabbling over new science standards and fighting over concepts such as common descent and natural selection.
The results were decidedly mixed. Some of the most obnoxious proposals failed to pass, but critics fear there is some overly vague language in the new standards that could open the door to creationist concepts in public schools.
How did one of our most populous states come to this pass?
Part of the problem is that the board includes a big contingent of Religious Right operatives. Board Chairman Don McLeroy, for example, is a creationist who frequently spouts ill-informed Religious Right nonsense about evolution, a concept he clearly does not understand.
Things are so bad in Texas that Christina Castillo Comer, the Texas Education Agency's director of science for the curriculum division, was forced out of her job in October of 2007. What was Comer's heinous crime? She forwarded an e-mail to science teachers in the state advising them about an upcoming speech by Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and prominent critic of "intelligent design" creationism. (Full disclosure: Forrest serves on Americans United's Board of Trustees.)
Comer believed science teachers might appreciate the opportunity to hear a nationally recognized expert speak on an issue that is relevant to their jobs. Agency officials believed differently. They said Comer had violated a policy requiring neutrality on the teaching of creationism. Comer was ordered to send an e-mail stating that the previous message did not reflect agency policy, which she did. She was still forced to resign.
Comer filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that the agency's demand for neutrality between evolution and creationism has the effect of promoting religion. The Supreme Court and lower federal courts, after all, have ruled that creationism is a religious concept that is not suited for public schools.
Unfortunately, a federal judge yesterday dismissed Comer's case. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled that the demand for neutrality is reasonable, given that the members of the Board of Education are often divided on these issues as well.
Huh? I suppose under this logic, if some members of the Texas education board believe the Earth is flat, or that it is the center of the universe, Comer would be required to be neutral on these matters as well and could not tell teachers about lectures countering those claims.
Anyone wondering why science education in Texas is in such a sorry state need not look much beyond this incident. In other states, educators have the freedom to speak out against bad science in the classroom; some even consider it part of their job. In Texas, evolution has become the scientific concept that dare not speak its name.
I feel sorry for the public school students of Texas. Idiotic policies like this rarely spawn good education standards.