Teaching creationism in Texas public schools may become illegal next year.
In September, a group of educators chosen by the Texas Education Agency to streamline the state’s science curriculum standards removed portions of four passages that contained creationist language. The new standards must still be approved by the Texas State Board of Education where creationists are fighting to reverse the changes. The board members, unlike the education agency staff, are elected officials. That means the fate of creationism in Texas could be determined on Election Day.
If the decision stands, it would be a major blow to political creationism and the first time in a decade for any state’s creationism policy to be overturned.
Written in 2009, Texas’s creationist standards include a requirement for students to learn “all sides” of scientific theories like evolution and to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.” They also call for students to analyze the “sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.”
Complexity of the cell is a stand in for irreducible complexity, the creationist belief that the structure and function of cell components (and pieces of other larger body parts) are too interdependent to have formed through evolution, piece by piece over many generations. Instead, creationists posit that cells were created fully formed and all at once, by God.
Sudden appearance is a reference to the Cambrian Explosion, a period beginning around 550 million years ago. Over the next 20 million years, a large number of animal phyla appeared in the fossil record. This is unusually rapid evolution, and because the term explosion mirrors creation, it has become go-to evidence for creationists claiming that God made animals.
These standards are scientifically inaccurate and the Texas Education Agency panel wasn’t afraid to say so.
“Evidence does not have sides,” it declared as it voted 6-2 to remove the creationist passages.
This method of bringing creationism into public schools was popularized by the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank responsible for similar creationism laws in Louisiana and Tennessee. A Discovery Institute whistleblower previously told The Daily Beast that the organization “is religiously motivated in all they do.”
The Discovery Institute and other creationists won’t let their standards die quietly. In a letter to the Board of Education, the Discovery Institute called the modern view of evolution “airbrushed dogma” and said removing the creationist standards would be “terrible for our kids.”
When the Education Agency was choosing its panel of educators to review the standards, creationist members of the Board of Education tried to fill the group with creationists.
Barbara Cargill, a State Board member and its former chairwoman, told The Daily Beast she wouldn’t decide how to vote until she’d “researched this issue thoroughly.”
But behind the scenes, Cargill, whose campaign website says she supports science standards that teach “evolution as a theory, not as fact,” was arranging for creationists to be part of the Texas Education Agency group reviewing biology standards. According to emails obtained by The Daily Beast via public records request, the two votes against removing creationism came from panel members who Cargill pushed to have included. One was a Discovery Institute fellow and the other a creationist whose application to review the standards, the Texas Education Agency noted to Cargill, “did not show any biology experience.”
Since the attempt to keep creationism in the standards by putting creationists on the review panel was unsuccessful, retaining creationism comes down to state board members like Cargill. They may have the votes to do it.
At a meeting in September, state board member Marty Rowley, who has campaigned on teaching both evolution and creationism, expressed concern about the removal of standards “critically looking at evolutionary theory.” Several other state board members are opposed to evolution.
Board member David Bradley has said “evolution is not fact.”
Another board member, Ken Mercer, has compared today’s treatment of critics of evolution to Nazism. “Did professors who found weaknesses in the Nazi theories receive research grants, funding, and foundation awards?” Mercer asked in 2008. “History is not kind to Darwinian evolutionists.”
Donna Bahorich, the current chairwoman of the state board, is a former campaign manager for Texas’ Lieutenant Governor, Dan Patrick, who said creationism should be “heralded” and “triumphed” in public schools. She’s likely to vote to put creationism back into the standards and has previously criticized science textbooks for including “horseshoe crab sex.”
The final vote on the new standards will take place next spring and control of the 15 member board is narrowly split 6-6 between moderates and religious conservatives, with 3 more Republican board members acting as swing voters. If the vote were held today, it’s probable the new standards would be approved. But after the election, the vote becomes less clear.
Most seats in this election are not competitive, but one race could change the composition of the board. Keven Ellis, a Republican from Lufkin is running against Amanda Rudolph, a Democrat. As the Republican, Ellis is the overwhelming favorite to win. He will replace Thomas Ratliff, a Republican who helped lead efforts to moderate the board and bring it out of the culture wars. Ratliff is stepping down at the end of the year.
This could realign the board in the conservatives favor.
Ellis is far less extreme than Mary Lou Bruner, the primary opponent he defeated. Bruner called President Obama a gay prostitute and blamed evolution for school shootings. But Ellis, who doesn’t believe schools should teach about man-made climate change, hasn’t made his position on evolution clear, but he’ll have to soon. The decision on whether Texas’s education has finally evolved rests with him.