State board votes to eliminate disputed evolution lesson plan

By CARRIE SPENCER GHOSE, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Disputed material on teaching Ohio students to question evolutionary theory is heading back to the state education committee that wrote the first version.

The Ohio Board of Education voted 11-4 on Tuesday to delete a science standard and correlating lesson plan encouraging students to seek evidence for and against evolution. Critics had called the material an opening to teach intelligent design, which holds that life is so complex it must have been created by a higher authority.

The 2002 science standards say students should be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." The standards include a disclaimer that they do not require the teaching of intelligent design, but evolutionary biologists say study suggestions in the lesson echo intelligent design literature.

In December, a federal judge barred the school system in Dover, Pa., from teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in high school biology classes. The judge said that intelligent design is religion masquerading as science, and that teaching it alongside evolution violates the separation of church and state.

The board's vote was a reversal of a 9-8 decision a month ago to keep the lesson plan. But three board members who voted in January to keep the plan in place were absent from Tuesday's meeting.

Only one member changed his vote. Jim Craig, who had earlier supported the plan, said he wanted the board to stop the ongoing fight before it spilled into other policies.

The board also assigned a board committee -- led by Craig and Michael Cochran, of suburban Columbus, who also supported the lesson -- to decide if there should be a replacement.

"We're not accomplishing anything by fighting each other," said Craig, of Canton. "We've proved that for four years."

Craig said he hopes both sides will work out a compromise.

Biologists in the audience agreed, saying they hope the committee will listen more to the scientific community this time around. Patricia Princehouse, who teaches philosophy and evolutionary biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, noted that the committee's composition has changed since the lesson plan was approved in 2004.

Steve Rissing, a biology professor at Ohio State University, said the examples of scientific disagreements in the lesson plan are topics that would be discussed by a graduate-level class. He said high school students should focus on the basics.

The plan was one of three for teaching the state's standards on evolution. Although schools are not required to teach the standards, districts that don't would put students at risk of not passing that portion of the Ohio graduation test.

The Pennsylvania court decision against teaching intelligent design does not apply in Ohio, but critics of state standards said it invited a similar legal challenge.

Board member Martha Wise, who pushed to eliminate the material, said the board took the correct action to avoid a lawsuit or other problems.

"It is deeply unfair to the children of this state to mislead them about science," said Wise, representing northern Ohio.

In approving Wise's motion, the board rejected a competing plan to request a legal opinion from the state attorney general on the constitutionality of the science standards. Wise said the board could do so if the committee recommends a replacement.

Wise said other events since the ruling made removing the standards even more important. Earlier this month, for example, Gov. Bob Taft recommended a legal review of the standards.

In addition, members of a committee that advised state education officials on Ohio's science curriculum said the standards improperly singled out the theory of evolution and could lead to religious teachings.

The lesson's supporters said they would support having students critically analyze more aspects of science.

Board member Deborah Owens Fink, who voted against eliminating the lesson plan, said it was unfair to deny students the chance to use logic to question a scientific theory. She said the board listened to extensive public and scientific input for years before approving the plan, and that scientists who oppose the material were worried their views couldn't be supported.

"We respect diversity of opinion in every other arena," said Owens Fink, from Akron.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)