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Originally published Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Florida now requires evolution instruction

State education board softens scientists' recommendation, not fully satisfying those on either side of an issue that has drawn heat.

The Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — A bitter debate over how to teach evolution in Florida's public schools ended — at least temporarily — with a compromise Tuesday. The state Board of Education voted 4-3 in Tallahassee to adopt new science standards that for the first time require evolution to be taught.

The majority selected a last-minute alternative rather than the original document created by scientists and science teachers after months of work.

That compromise, introduced late last week, inserts the phrase "the scientific theory of" in front of evolution and certain other concepts.

Opponents, who disliked both options, plan to shift their fight to the state Legislature.

John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer and president of the Florida Family Policy Counsel, said after the vote that social conservatives hope to persuade lawmakers to pass protections for teachers who offer alternatives to evolution in the classroom. Such academic-freedom proposals have been debated in Florida and other states for years.

Stemberger called the final revision a "meaningless and impotent change."

The adopted version, as the original, spells out for the first time that evolution must be taught in schools as the "fundamental concept underlying all of biology" and one that it is "supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence."

Board member Roberto Martinez favored the original and voted against the "scientific theory" wording, saying it was a diluted version meant to appease evolution opponents who want religious beliefs taught, too.

"Our responsibility is to approve the best science standards, and we didn't do that today," Martinez said

Board member Kathleen Shanahan, who voted with the majority, disagreed. "I don't think that it's at all watered down. It's qualified in terms of scientific theory."

Board member Donna Callaway also voted "no," but not for the same reasons as Martinez.

She said neither version allowed teachers to discuss other ideas about how life developed on Earth, in effect shielding students from the type of debate the board heard in the Capitol on Tuesday.

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"I believe in teaching evolution with all its blips, all its warts, all its blemishes." Callaway said. "But leave the doorway open for people, teachers and kids who want to explore whether they accept that."

The decision came after months of controversy over new standards designed to beef up science education in a state where students lag on national tests. The new standards aim to give youngsters a deeper understanding of key "big ideas" rather than cursory knowledge of many facts.

Evolution is not mentioned in the old science standards, though students were supposed to learn the concepts. How it was taught varied by county.

The introduction of evolution as one of those "big ideas" created a public outcry, much of it centered in North Florida, where several school boards voted to oppose the changes.

More than 10,000 people logged onto the Florida Department of Education's Web site to comment on the new standards. Many wrote that teaching evolution — the theory that all living things evolved from a shared common ancestry — was in direct conflict with their religious faith.

The Education Department came up with the alternative last week in response to "public input" and to make sure the word "theory" was used consistently and in a "scientifically appropriate" way.

With the new standards approved, school districts will redo science-lesson plans, publishers will update science textbooks and the state will revise the science section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"At least the kids in Florida are going to learn some honest-to-God biology," said Lawrence Lerner, a retired physics professor at California State University, Long Beach, and a national expert on public-school science standards.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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