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Florida Gives Evolution a Thumbs-Up

19 February 2008 (All day)
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The Florida Board of Education today approved new science standards that bestow the state's blessing upon the teaching of evolution for the first time in Florida's history. However, scientists and educators in the state were disappointed with a last- minute revision in which the word "scientific" was inserted before every mention of "theory" in the 97-page document.

The standards, passed by a 4-3 margin, thus include clunky phrases such as "the scientific theory of evolution," "the scientific theory of atoms," and "the scientific theory of cells." Education department officials proposed the revision on Friday in an apparent bid to appease conservatives and secure enough votes to get the document adopted. At least 10 counties across the state had passed resolutions denouncing the standards.

"This is a dramatic improvement over our current standards," says Debra Walker, a member of the Monroe County school board and part of the committee that framed the document. "I am disappointed that it was edited by politicians just before the vote, but it is a political process and compromises are a part of the deal."

It's unclear how the wording change influenced the overall vote. But Roberto Martinez, one of the board members who had been supporting the standards throughout the public-comment period, cast a negative vote to protest the edits.

Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, sees the revisions as a "cosmetic" change that do not dilute the standards in any way. "What's important is that this allows teachers in Florida to present evolution to students as a strong scientific view that is based on evidence," she says, noting that adding the word "scientific" to every theory in the standards prevents "evolution from being singled out as an unusually suspect idea."

Despite the new standards, Scott says, the real challenge will be to ensure that teachers across the state are able to teach evolution without fearing reprisal from conservative school board officials. "The question is," she asks, "what happens inside the classroom after the teacher closes the door?"

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