CINCINNATI — A bill to repeal the Common Core education standards in Ohio has ignited a new debate about an old issue: whether schools should be allowed to teach creationism.
The debate stems from a few sentences about science standards contained in the state House bill. The language is vague and, sponsors thought, fairly innocuous.
"The standards in science shall be based in core existing disciplines of biology, chemistry, and physics; incorporate grade-level mathematics and be referenced to the mathematics standards; focus on academic and scientific knowledge rather than scientific processes; and prohibit political or religious interpretation of scientific facts in favor of another."
Critics, however, say that language opens the door for school districts to teach creationism — sometimes called intelligent design — in science classes. The current science standards, adopted in July 2011, refer specifically to evolution.
The Common Core is a set of education standards adopted by Ohio and more than 40 other states. As school districts in Ohio prepare to introduce them this school year more and more opposition has sprung up. Republican lawmakers in Ohio and Kentucky have proposed bills to repeal it. In Ohio, a House committee held hearings on the bill this week, and more are scheduled for next week.
Republican state Rep. Andy Thompson, sponsor of the bill, says its critics are making a lot of noise about nothing.
"Nowhere in the bill does it mention creationism," he said. "It was designed more at those who would push a political interpretation of science," he said.
He offered as an example the debate about global warming. He said many other scientific projections from years ago haven't come true and shouldn't be taught in school.
"I remember in the early '80s when we were told we'd be out of oil and gas and food based on scientific theory at the time," he said. "None of those projections have panned out. These were peoples' political views and guesses. This is my attempt to try to eliminate as much politics out of science that we can."
Even though the bill doesn't include the word creationism, it's whipped up outrage among pro-science groups who say it could potentially lead to lawsuits against school districts.
"It's a hugely bad idea," said Glen Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education which is re-energizing its Ohio chapter to mount a campaign against the bill.
"It wouldn't require districts to teach (creationism) but would allow them to," he said. "That puts districts in a very difficult position, especially if there are a lot of groups in that area that are supportive of teaching creationism. Some will be tempted to push the limits and teach creationism. If they do, they'll get sued over it."
The evolution vs. creationism debate — and how schools are supposed to handle it — has been raging for years. In 2002, Ohio inserted language into its science standards that allowed for critical analysis of evolutionary theory. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court forbade a Pennsylvania school district from teaching intelligent design as science. The Ohio Board of Education debated the issue again in 2006 and removed the 2002 language.
Thompson said he doesn't question evolution being taught in schools. "That's been the dominant theory out there," he said.
He said, though, that school districts should be able to have flexibility to include other perspectives.
"There is the perspective of faith and the perspective of science. When people try to lose that debate, that's not science. Science is testing assumptions and testing hypotheses. When it comes to science we need to allow kids to think creatively and freely about matters rather than say 'This is it.' Our goal is to allow for classroom teachers, local districts to decide the route they want to go."