By a 6-4 margin, the Kansas Board of Education voted Tuesday to mandate that students learn about the "controversial" aspects of Charles Darwin's widely accepted theory of evolution. The move was seen as a victory for religious conservatives who question Darwin's theory in favor of one of "intelligent design," which suggests that life is too complex for evolution to have happened without the assistance of some higher power.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the new standards — which were seen as a free-speech victory by supporters and a move into questionable science by detractors — allege a "lack of adequate natural explanations for the genetic code." The move makes Kansas the fifth state to adopt standards that question evolution.
"This is a great day for education. ... This absolutely teaches more about science," said Steve Abrams, the Republican board chairman who voted with the majority, which overruled a 26-member science committee and ignored the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association in passing the standards.
Opponents of the measure on the school board accused Abrams and his colleagues of using a smokescreen of science to mask the injection of religion into public schools. According to the Times, they called the decision bad for education and bad for the state's reputation.
"This is a sad day, not only for Kansas kids, but for Kansas," said Janet Waugh, who voted against the new standards. "We're becoming a laughingstock, not only of the nation but of the world."
The new standards suggest that several aspects of evolution that the majority of scientists believe to be fact, including the concept that all living things are biologically related, have been "challenged." But prominent scientists and science organizations say there is no significant controversy, and evidence from fields ranging from paleontology to molecular biology shows all life on Earth originated from a single simple life form.
Intelligent design "does not provide any natural explanation that can be tested," said Francisco Ayala, an expert in evolutionary genetics and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He told the Times that the Kansas standards "are an insult to science, an insult to education and an insult to the American Constitution."
The Board's decision does not mandate what public school students will be taught, which is left to local school boards. But by determining what students are expected to know for state assessment tests, state standards typically influence what students are taught in the classroom.
In 1999, Kansas approved standards that eliminated all references to evolution. But after the conservative majority on the board was booted in 2000, the anti-evolution standards were repealed. The latest reversal came when religious conservatives regained a majority on the education board last fall.
While Ohio, Minnesota and New Mexico have already adopted standards that encourage questions about evolution, a verdict is expected in January in a Pennsylvania trial over whether teaching "intelligent design" violates the Constitution's ban on state promotion of religion. The eight Dover, Pennsylvania, school board members who introduced "intelligent design" to the curriculum were voted out of office Tuesday, replaced by candidates who challenged the policy.