Cover Story

After the big bang

Kansas public school students are back in the classroom following last month's brouhaha. The Kansas Board of Education did not ban the teaching of Darwinism, nor did it mandate creationism. But by simply leaving the matter up to local school districts, Kansas has sparked a national dialogue on evolution education

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

Heading west across State Line Road-the street that separates Johnson County, Kan., from Kansas City, Mo.-an outsider to the area could be forgiven for saying, "Toto, I don't think we're really in Kansas yet."

Instead of wheat fields and farmhouses, this part of the sunflower state sports bustling shopping centers, prosperous suburban subdivisions, office parks with thriving small businesses, and the national headquarters for Sprint.

It might surprise that same outsider to learn that this part of Kansas-more than the rural areas or small towns for which the state is famous-is now ground zero for the battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Rural forces were divided in the Kansas Board of Education's controversial 6-4 vote last month to exclude evolution from statewide tests. But both of suburban Johnson County's board members, including board chairman Linda Holloway, voted with the majority, as did the member representing Wichita, the state's other large concentration of population.

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But the suburban element isn't all that's counter-intuitive about the Kansas vote. It's also surprising that what the Kansas board did became a national controversy at all. The board did not outlaw nor even discourage the teaching of evolution. It did not mandate nor even encourage the teaching of creationism. The board simply left the matter up to local districts.

As part of a periodic revision of standards for statewide tests, a committee of science educators appointed by the state commissioner of education rewrote standards that had been in place since 1995, subject to the approval of the 10-member state Board of Education. The proposed standards significantly added to the evolution language of the previous standards, emphasizing that macro-evolution by natural selection-the theory that unguided gradual changes over billions of years led to the creation of new species-is "a broad, unifying theoretical framework in biology." The proposed standards left out any reference to evidence against the theory.

That proposal was unacceptable to the board, as well as to many Kansas communities that held public forums about the document. The board and the science teachers attempted to negotiate a compromise and when that failed, the board simply removed mentions of macro-evolution from the standards. The board's action wasn't nearly as aggressive as Alabama's decision a few years ago to include an anti-Darwinian insert in biology textbooks. "I don't really think we did that much," John W. Bacon, a board member from southern Johnson County, told WORLD. "I would be frankly surprised if any district throws out evolution," says Mrs. Holloway.

But that didn't stop the national press from going berserk, with The New York Times giving the story front-page status, and even European newspapers trumpeting the news. "The reason they are in such a funk is that they perceive a serious public protest against the established religion of scientific naturalism," says Phillip Johnson, an outspoken critic of Darwinism.

Much of the news coverage was simply inaccurate. Headline writers seemed to have particular problems getting the story straight. "Charles Darwin gets thrown out of school" screamed U.S. News & World Report, while a New Orleans Times-Picayune headline read, "Kansas schools' ban on evolution blasted." Syndicated columnist Lars-Erik Nelson scolded the board for wanting "to foist its own religious beliefs on the secular educational system of an entire state."

The notoriety was too much for the local Kansas City Star. "Kansas is a national joke this week, and it's your fault, Johnson County," wrote the Star's Mike Hendricks. He worried that now "the nation thinks Kansans pick banjos with their bare feet." Another Star columnist, after describing in detail how a citizen could file to run against Mrs. Holloway in 2000, finished with a jab at the board: "You don't even need a high school degree [to run]. Now there's a shock."

Even some opponents of Darwinism were critical of the Kansas board's vote. "They identify the problem, but not the solution," says John Wiester of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a group of Christian scientists based in Ipswich, Mass. "The solution is to teach more [about evolution], like the unsolved problems and unanswered questions that are at variance with the theory," he told WORLD.

Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and prominent critic of Darwinism, sounded a similar note in an op-ed for The New York Times: "Teach Darwin's elegant theory. But also discuss where it has real problems accounting for the data, where data are severely limited, where scientists might be engaged in wishful thinking and where alternative-even 'heretical'-explanations are possible."

But Mrs. Holloway and Mr. Bacon don't disagree. "Evolution is an important theory and I don't want any kids to be ignorant of it," Mrs. Holloway told WORLD. "I think it's important and that students need to know it, but everything about it, not just evidence for it," says Mr. Bacon.

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