Texas education board votes in favor of reason

The Texas Board of Education voted 14-0 on July 22 to approve high school textbook supplements that promote a scientifically accurate understanding of evolution and the beginnings of life on earth. In doing so, they voted to reject a supplement from International Databases, LLC., a Utah-based company that had submitted its own supplement, which would have taught “intelligent design”  as an equally valid competing theory.

According to the International Databases supplement, published on the website of the Texas Education Agency, the failure of some scientific models to fully explain the origins of life means, “the Null (default) hypothesis stands. This allows for testing of the legitimate scientific hypothesis… Life on earth is the result of intelligent causes.”

A section titled “Suggestions for Teachers” said, “Students should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life’s origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios. This new way of thinking is predicated upon the hypothesis that intelligent input is necessary for life’s origins.”

Of the other supplements to the science books that came up for review, one, by Holt McDougal, was singled out by a creationist on the schoolbook review panel. According to the critic, there was a list of inaccuracies in the book, but the supplement was accepted anyway, under the provision that any mistakes would be cleared up.

The rules for selecting science textbooks in Texas require that all materials be sent to review teams beforehand. The teams are selected by the board, and include people who were nominated by it as well as those who applied on their own. Some team members and nominees were identified not only as intelligent design advocates, but also even as “young earth creationists” – those who believe that the planet is less than 6,000 years old.

While the board has a right-wing creationist fringe, popular support seems to have moved the members, who are elected officials, away from the International Databases supplement. At a July 21 hearing, the day before the vote was taken, four times as many people spoke against the creationist supplements as for them.

The Texas Freedom Network, which in 2009 led a fight that succeeded in stripping anti-evolution requirements from the state’s education standards, led the fight again this time. The group circulated a petition, initiated a rapid response team and involved evolution-friendly religious leaders and congregations in the fight for school science.

Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Council on Science Education, said in a statement on the group’s website, “These supplements reflect the overwhelming scientific consensus that evolution is the core of modern biology, and is a central and vital concept in any biology class. That these supplements were adopted unanimously reflects a long overdue change in the board. I commend the board for its refusal to politicize science education.”

The board has a long history of issuing politicized, often right wing standards for the state’s education. In 2010, it voted to ban what it saw as “pro-Muslim” and “anti-Christian” books from schools.

Decisions taken in Texas have a strong impact on the curricula of school districts across the country. Most school boards in the U.S. town-, city- or county-level, but the Texas board has responsibility for the entire state. Consequently, it is the largest school board, and therefore in charge of the largest market for textbooks. Publishers, seeking a share of the market, try to ensure that their books are selected for use by the board, and therefore often cater to its standards.

Photo: Children examining the jaw of a Megalodon, an extinct species of shark that lived millions of years ago during the Cenozoic Era, at the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. The jaw is 11 feet wide and almost 9 feet tall and has 182 teeth collected from South Carolina rivers. (Rich Matthews/AP)