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Austin Statesman (Texas)

Texas Science Curriculum Director Resigns, Says Creationism Politics To Blame

Laura Heinauer

The state's director of science curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design.

Chris Comer, who has been the Texas Education Agency's director of science curriculum for more than nine years, offered her resignation this month.1130 04

In documents obtained Wednesday through the Texas Public Information Act, agency officials said they recommended firing Comer for repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. But Comer said she thinks political concerns about the teaching of creationism in schools were behind what she describes as a forced resignation.

Agency officials declined to comment, saying it was a personnel issue.

Comer was put on 30 days paid administrative leave shortly after she forwarded an e-mail in late October announcing a presentation being given by Barbara Forrest, author of "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse," a book that says creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools. Forrest was also a key witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case concerning the introduction of intelligent design in a Pennsylvania school district. Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities, saying, "FYI."

Agency officials cited the e-mail in a memo recommending her termination. They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, "it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science."

The memo adds, "Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."

In addition to the e-mail, the memo lists other reasons for recommending termination, including Comer's failure to get prior approval to give a presentation and attend an off-site meeting after she was told in writing this year that there were concerns about her involvement with work outside the agency.

It also criticized Comer for allegedly saying that then-acting Commissioner Robert Scott was "only acting commissioner and that there was no real leadership at the agency."

Comer, who hadn't spoken about her resignation publicly until Wednesday, said she thinks politics about evolution were behind her firing.

"None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses," she said. Comer said her comments about Scott, who eventually received the commissioner appointment, were misconstrued. "I don't remember saying that. But even if I did, is that so horrible?" she said. "He was, after all, acting commissioner at the time."

Comer said other employees don't report off-site activities and that the presentation mentioned in the memo had been approved previously. Agency officials did not respond to Comer's assertions.

As for the e-mail, Comer said she did pause for a "half second" before sending it, but said she thought that because Forrest was a highly credentialed speaker, it would be OK.

Comer's resignation comes just months before the State Board of Education is to begin reviewing the science portion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the statewide curriculum that will be used to determine what should be taught in Texas classrooms and what textbooks are bought.

Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the issue of teaching creationism in schools has not been debated by the board in some time.

"There's been a long-standing policy that the pros and cons of scientific theory must be taught. And while we've had a great deal of public comment about evolution and creationism at state board meetings, it's not been a controversial issue with the board."

The call to fire Comer came from Lizzette Reynolds, who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education. She also served as deputy legislative director for Gov. George W. Bush. She joined the Texas Education Agency as the senior adviser on statewide initiatives in January.

Reynolds, who was out sick the day Comer forwarded the e-mail, received a copy from an unnamed source and forwarded it to Comer's bosses less than two hours after Comer sent it.

"This is highly inappropriate," Reynolds said in an e-mail to Comer's supervisors. "I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities.

"This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which sent the original e-mail to Comer announcing the event, said Comer's situation seems to be a warning to agency employees.

"This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas," Scott said. "In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board."

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that monitors state textbook content, said the group wants to know more about the case. The network has raised questions about past comments made by State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy about teaching creationism.

"It's important to know whether politics and ideology are standing in the way of Texas kids getting a 21st century science education," Miller said. "We've already seen a faction of the State Board of Education try to politicize and censor what our schoolchildren learn. It would be even more alarming if the same thing is now happening inside TEA itself."

© 2007 Austin Statesman

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