For the first time ever, evolution is to be taught clearly and explicitly in Florida classrooms now that the state Board of Education approved a batch of new science standards Tuesday that mention the ''E'' word.
But there's a catch: The subject will be taught as ``the scientific theory of evolution.''
As originally proposed, the science standards, updated for the first time since 1996, didn't call evolution a ''theory'' when they were drafted and reviewed by a panel of experts last year. Following numerous public complaints, though, the state Department of Education suggested the wording change to clearly label every scientific law and theory -- not just about evolution -- as such.
The seven-member board adopted the alternate proposal, and therefore the standards, by a 4-3 vote.
Religious advocates wanted more.
They proposed a so-called ''academic freedom'' amendment to counter what they say is the ''dogmatic'' tone of the standards that call evolution ''the fundamental concept underlying all of biology.'' The amendment would have given teachers explicit permission ``to engage students in a critical analysis of that evidence.''
But supporters of the standards and a majority of the board said the proposal was anything from unnecessary to redundant to suspect. After all, the standards already encourage ``scientific argumentation . . . critical and logical thinking, and the active consideration of alternative scientific explanations to explain the data presented.''
Board member Donna Callaway of Tallahassee, who made frequent reference to her faith, tried to get the ''academic freedom'' measure considered but couldn't get other members to go along.
''If we decide that we're going to hide this debate and we're going to hide the controversy, and we're going to hide the fact that thousands of people disagree, then we better get with the witness protection program,'' she said. ``This is a point of debate, and we need to address it right here.''
Board member Roberto Martinez of Miami replied: ``Respectfully, Donna, it is not a form of debate, or controversy, in the mainstream scientific community.''
He was cut off by applause and whistling from the pro-evolution crowd at the packed hearing. Until then, the evolution critics had hissed and muttered when Martinez said evolution was really a fact.
But Martinez and Callaway had this in common: Both voted against the standards -- Callaway because she wanted a less ''dogmatic'' tone on evolution, Martinez because he wanted the original standards as drafted and as praised by the National Academy of Sciences. He said he was concerned that calling evolution a theory -- even a ''Scientific Theory'' -- would still confuse the two common definitions of the word: a simple guess, or a scientific and testable concept based on facts.
Martinez also made a passing reference to a 2005 federal Pennsylvania court ruling that considered an alternative to evolution, called Intelligent Design, and found it to be more religion than science.
''What's going on here is an effort by people who are opposed to evolution to water down our standards,'' Martinez said. ``No matter how much the current strategy may have evolved in the past 20 years, the DNA is the same. . . creationism.''
Board member Akshay Desai voted against the standards because of the use of the word ''theory.'' All seven members, though, said the new standards are an improvement over the 10-year-old version.
With the new standards, teachers will be required to teach evolution and natural selection starting in the sixth grade and, starting in ninth grade, will teach learning ''hominid evolution from early ancestors'' to ''genetic drift'' and ``gene flow.''
POOR SCIENCE SCORES
Evolution is taught now in public schools, but it's not clear to what extent. The old standards never mentioned it by name, though they did mention natural selection, a key component of evolutionary theory. Supporters say the new standards will make science learning more in depth and will improve the understanding of science by Florida students, who do poorly in the subject area when tested.
John Stemberger, an activist with Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council, said the standards go too far, unfairly muzzle teachers and will lead more people to pull their kids out of public schools in favor of home-schooling and private education.
Stemberger was one of the 10 opponents to the standards who spoke alongside the 10 supporters before the board voted Tuesday.
The roles seemed reversed, with evolution supporters talking about God and critics talking about science and the need for inclusive learning.
Illustrating the apparent role reversals: Presbyterian pastor Brant S. Copeland of Tallahassee supported the standards as written and said evolution has helped shed light on God's creation.
Others said that not teaching evolution would mean that Florida's $600 million investment to lure bio-tech firms here is a waste, or that it would be tantamount to a Taliban-style religious fundamentalism.
On the other side: public school teacher David Brackin. He said the standards seem to discourage any teaching that questions evolution.
''There are cracks. There are holes,'' Brackin said, noting research and study from the Intelligent Design movement, which posits that multiple forms of life show such complexity and evidence of design that they must have been made by some unnamed higher intelligence.
Brackin said he was concerned that the new standards wouldn't allow him the freedom to teach some of the problems with evolution.
But board member Phoebe Raulerson said that's not the case. She provided the second to board member Linda Taylor's motion to add the ''scientific theory'' language, but didn't take up Callaway's motion to add the ''academic freedom'' provision because the standards already encourage critical thinking.
''One of the best parts [of the standards] is that we are trying to teach what is the scientific process,'' she said.
Joining Taylor and Raulerson in backing the standards were Kathleen Shanahan and Chairman T. Willard Fair, who cast the deciding vote and quickly slipped out of the meeting during a break.
© 2008 Miami Herald