MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The state school board voted unanimously Thursday to keep a disclaimer in biology textbooks that describes evolution as "a controversial theory" after no one in the audience disputed the label, which has generated heated debate in the past.
The board, in its vote to accept a committee's recommendations of science textbooks, agreed to continue carrying the disclaimer, which calls evolution "controversial" in the first paragraph and adds in the second that any statement about the origin of life is "not fact."
State Superintendent Joe Morton, who recommended keeping the label in the texts, said he wasn't surprised that the subject received no discussion during the portion of the meeting devoted to public comment.
"I think people have generally reached a level of comfort with where we are," he said. "It's not like it just came up in Alabama — there's been 10 years of history associated with this."
School board member Betty Peters agreed, saying the lack of public debate was "because the insert has worked out."
But Randall Johnson, who was a member of a 2001 panel charged with revising the science course of study, said supporters of the evolution theory are simply tired of battling the school board. Johnson was the only member of the panel to oppose the disclaimer.
"They know nothing is going to be done about it," said Johnson, who is the director of the Alabama Surface Mining Commission.
But, Johnson added, if calling evolution a controversial theory is "the only negative thing that comes out of (the disclaimer), that's not all that bad."
"They could have required the teaching of intelligent design or banned the teaching of evolution altogether," he said.
Intelligent design is a non-scientific idea that questions evolution and holds that a higher being must have had a hand in the complex variety of nature. Scientists say intelligent design is not a testable theory and so has no place in the science classroom.
Board members said the purpose of the disclaimer is to give room to teachers who want to discuss alternative theories. "Teachers do have some concerns about that," said school board member Randy McKinney.
He said that often teachers who want to teach alternatives to evolution, such as creationism or intelligent design, hesitate to do so, in fear of overstepping rules on the separation of church and state.
Intelligent design argues that natural selection, an element of evolutionary theory, cannot fully explain the origin of life or the emergence of highly complex life forms. Critics of intelligent design and creationism say they do not belong in a science curriculum.
Board members said teaching evolution will remain an issue that stirs convictions. They pointed to Kansas, where new science standards for public schools are getting national attention because critics see them as an attack on teaching evolution.
"I think people are upset about evolution all over America — it's a controversial topic," said Peters, who encourages teachers to teach alternative theories in addition to evolution.
Alabama remains the only state that carries such a sticker, according to the National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution. Other states, including Georgia and Arkansas, tried similar stickers but are fighting legal battles over keeping them.
The 23-member textbook committee, which includes 14 educators, recommended dozens of science textbooks to be approved by the school board for Alabama students, but rejected three elementary-level books for containing material on evolution that was deemed "controversial" for that age group.
The books were considered supplementary readers, meaning they could not be used as the sole textbook in the science curriculum.
Each of the three elementary books that were rejected discussed evolution and natural selection, which were regarded "controversial material at a grade level that is not developmentally ready for such controversial material," according to a series of Sept. 28 memos sent to school board members.
The books also didn't meet the state's science guidelines and were not "appropriate for the maturity level of the age group" they were targeting, the memos said.
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