Educators weigh in on creationism in schools

5/4/2013

By RACHAEL GRAY

By RACHAEL GRAY

rgray@gctelegram.com

When Hugoton Public Schools agreed to allow a creationist speaker to talk about science in Hugoton public schools last month, it drew the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the speech wouldn't be in accordance with the federal law of separation of church and state.

Hugoton Public Schools' decision to allow Matt Miles from the Creation Truth Foundation to give a presentation to Hugoton students is drawing mixed reaction and opinions from some area and state educators, as well as some science scholars.

Sally Cauble, vice chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education, and representative of District 5, said the decision was under local control.

"I have no say over that. If that's what the school board wants, and what works in that community that's local control," she said.

Cauble said she doesn't agree with teaching creationism in schools and that Kansas schools should stick to state standards. But Miles stayed in line with the law and talked about dinosaur bones and fossils at Hugoton schools. He didn't mention the origin of the Earth, the age of the fossils and dinosaur replicas or make any mention of the Bible.

A group of Hugoton residents approached the school district to see if Miles, a Hugoton High School alumnus. could come and speak to local students.

Hugoton USD 215 Superintendent Mark Crawford had Miles sign a memorandum stating that he wouldn't go into such topics as the origin of the Earth, the age of the fossils and the Bible. Crawford defended the district's decision, saying Miles' speech was not out of line and the ACLU didn't think Hugoton educators could make their own, responsible decisions.

Crawford also said the geography of Hugoton makes it difficult for students to visit museums. Miles' presentation allowed students to see up close and personal the fossils and replicas of dinosaurs.

Although Cauble said Crawford wasn't in the wrong in bringing Miles to the school, she said the discussion of fossils and dinosaurs might better be left to having the guest speaker in the science classroom.

"That's a local control issue. But if they were really relating it to science standards, they should have left it to a discussion in a classroom. The timing of guest speakers — it's best to do that when you're on that subject," she said.

Cauble said the subject of dinosaurs was appropriate for an all-school program.

"If he didn't go into creationism, it was a very appropriate assembly. Everyone learns a little about dinosaurs in grade school, and all students love them. It was a perfectly acceptable assembly," she said.

She also said that in a small community, it's difficult to find public spaces to hold events. Miles and Creation Truth Foundation members also held public assemblies at night, when they did spread their message.

"It's a community school. And I'm not as critical as to who uses it for public use. That may be the only place a large group can fit into. And it is taxpayer money. If they follow the policy of use, I see no problem there," she said.

Fundamentalist speakers in schools should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, she said.

"I think it depends on how it's done. If it's presented as another idea amongst many, it's fine. If they try to prove their side, it's wrong. I think it depends on how it's used. We need to try to educate our kids that there's all sorts of ideas out there," she said.

Cauble, as a Christian, said with science and religion, you don't have to have one or the other.

But teaching those ideals doesn't belong in schools, she said.

"On creation, I just believe that God created the world and he may have done that through many different ways," she said.

In the new state science standards that are coming out, Cauble said, the curriculum does deal with evolution, but it doesn't get into the specifics and details of the theory.

"I don't think people understand that we don't go into the depth of that in junior high and high school like people think we do. We're worrying about things that are so minute in the overall science world," she said.

When students go to college, they will face more of the in-depth classes on those topics, she said.

Cauble said she won't ever vote for religious fundamentals to be taught in science classes in Kansas schools.

"I won't ever vote for that being the only way we teach our students. I will vote for what is in the new science standards," she said.

Cauble said as with all state standards, the new science standards promote literacy with the ability for discussion and exploration.

"Instead of, here's the information, learn it and memorize it, they'll have to apply it. And then we'll have to show the knowledge of being able to do this," she said.

Cauble said she doesn't think the new science standards are controversial.

"They've been out over a year for the public to look at," she said.

Diane DeBacker, Kansas commissioner of education, said her office has been in communication with Crawford.

"He did apologize if this was bringing any undue attention to the state of Kansas, especially as we're working to adopt the new science standards in Kansas," she said.

DeBacker said Crawford's email was thoughtful and that he had the whole state in mind when making this decision.

She also said the assembly stayed in line with state and federal law.

"From everything I've read and heard, from the news and others, it doesn't appear anything was done inappropriately. Crawford and his staff took precautions that this didn't drift over into a conversation that shouldn't be happening in Kansas public schools right now," she said.

DeBacker said she hasn't seen an upswing in fundamentalist groups trying to speak at public schools.

"Our superintendents and curriculum directors are very knowledgeable in what they can and cannot allow in schools. They follow the separation of church and state. I think most err on the side of caution most of the time and say no rather than yes," she said.

DeBacker said she's received no complaints from local or national educators on the Hugoton matter.

"I think the intentions of the school district and of Crawford were exactly as they said they were," she said.

But Kenny Bridges, superintendent at USD 494 Syracuse public schools, said if the school board there allowed such a speaker into the school, he would publicly denounce that decision.

"That's the basic violation of the separation of religion and schools," he said.

Bridges said the debate goes beyond that.

"Nobody took prayers out of schools. I pray. But it's not my decision to make others," he said.

Bridges said it's a debate he often had at Oral Roberts University.

"If we have mandated Christian prayer, let's say someday down the road we have mandated Hindu prayer. Not everyone would agree on that either," he said.

Bridges said he wouldn't have agreed to let a creationist group into the public school.

"I would have never, ever signed off on that kind of assembly. I believe in conflict, and I believe in science. I also believe in Christianity, but religion doesn't belong in public schools," he said.

Bridges said this isn't a debate over religion itself.

"The Bible and science do not disagree. You've got the pragmatist and the realist ideals. Things are not always black and white," he said.

Those discussions are not for a science classroom or speech, he said.

"I would have been very open in my opposition against that," he said.

Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education Inc., is a former doctoral candidate in evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas. He said a program on fossils and dinosaurs would have been better presented by actual paleontologists. And Kansas has many.

"There are people there, all over the state, who understand science in its entirety," he said.

Rosenau contends students could have been misled by the presentation.

"I am not sure what that speaker said but there are ways that creationists can sneak ideas in, ways they can mislead students as to what science is and how it works. That would be my biggest concern — that they would be looking to him as an expert on this subject and may consider him an option for further research on these matters," he said.

Rosenau said some science teachers in the district may have opposed the assembly, but it's tricky to get teachers to come forward.

"There's the right thing to do and say, but then they also want to get along with their neighbors and colleagues," he said.

Rosenau said the advice he would give to teachers is to remember they have the greatest dedication to themselves and to students.

"That means teaching evolution thoroughly and comprehensively. A lot of people have misconceptions about evolution and science in the context of religion and social issues. But what happens in science class is different. When you talk about that, you alleviate some of those concerns," he said.

In Garden City USD 457, Superintendent Rick Atha said the district handles assemblies on a case-by-case basis.

"We do assemblies for two reasons: for educational reasons to align with goals and objectives with coursework, and for an entertainment value," he said.

Atha said a lot of outside groups come in and use facilities.

"We have a use of schools and facilities policy that we follow. It would be possible for a church to use our facilities beyond the school day or on a weekend," he said.

Atha said the building principals, and then the superintendent, evaluate what groups come into the schools.

"We do have to be mindful in a public school of the separation of church and state. That is a federal law," he said.

Atha said the district also would consult the legal counsel locally and with the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Tom Blackburn, USD 457 Board of Education vice president, echoed Atha.

"I don't have a position on any speaker until I know what the entire situation would be.¬ I would try to evaulate each situation on the known facts at the time," he said.

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