Three years after it first encouraged science teachers to raise doubts about evolution, the Ohio Board of Education reversed course yesterday, voting 11-4 to drop a curriculum standard that became a model for several other states.
Since 2002, Ohio's 10th-graders have been required to learn that "scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." The theory of evolution - which holds that all life on Earth descended from a common ancestor - was the only scientific discipline singled out for critical analysis.
Mainstream scientists opposed that curriculum standard at the time. But they did not threaten a lawsuit or publicly force the issue. In the past two months, however, opposition to the standard re-emerged.
First, Ohio board members took note of a federal judge's pro-evolution ruling in Dover, Pa., in December. The judge declared that it was illegal for the school board to require teachers to introduce "intelligent design," the concept that life is too complex to have evolved by random mutation.
Then a group opposing Ohio's standards obtained documents showing that state Department of Education staff and outside scientists vigorously condemned - even ridiculed - a model lesson plan that was supposed to train 10th-graders to critically analyze evolution. These experts described the lesson plan as grounded in religious accounts of the world's creation, rather than in science.
As newspaper editorials across Ohio raised questions about the curriculum, Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, publicly voiced concern that it might have illegally opened the door to intelligent design being taught in public schools. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, citing the Dover case, demanded a tighter rein on teachers who raise alternative ideas about man's origins in science class.
Taken together, these events prompted the board to reconsider the 10th-grade science standard and the model lesson plan.
"I'm very pleased that the board acted decisively," said board member Robin Hovis, who has opposed the critical analysis requirement from the start.
Hovis and others who support teaching evolution alone predicted that Ohio's decision would affect science standards in several other states. New Mexico, Minnesota and Kansas also require students to learn criticisms of evolution; South Carolina and Michigan are considering a similar measure.
"This becomes another arrow in the quiver for board members across the country who are trying to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum," Hovis said.
But opponents of evolution cautioned that the debate is far from over.
"This was an unfortunate decision based on false fears," said Casey Luskin, an attorney with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based group that supports research into intelligent design. "These people want to censor information from students."
Stephanie Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.