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Published in Print: October 13, 1999, as N.M. Board Scrambles To Avoid Kansas Comparisons

N.M. Board Scrambles To Avoid Kansas Comparisons

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Leaders of the New Mexico school board don't want to be compared to Kansas anymore.

When the Kansas state board struck most references to evolution from the academic standards it adopted in August, several news articles mentioned similarities between the new Kansas standards and New Mexico's. Last week, the president of the New Mexico board said she hoped her colleagues would end that perception by eliminating language deemed to undercut the teaching of evolution. Board members were scheduled to vote late last week on whether to do just that.

"This would have happened regardless" of the widely criticized action in Kansas, Flora M. Sanchez, the leader of the New Mexico board, said on the eve of the Oct. 8 vote to revise her state's student-performance standards for science. "That spurred us to move this up even sooner, but we would have addressed it."

Ms. Sanchez said she expected the 15-member panel to support her proposal to delete a sentence requiring teachers to discuss "evidence for and against evolution" and perform a "critical analysis" of the concept that biologists say forms the basis of their theories.

The changes would simply clarify what the state expects of its teachers, Ms. Sanchez said. Sections in the state's content standards already include references to Charles Darwin's evolution theories, as do the tests the state gives students in grades 4-8. But the performance standards included a few statements that critics say resemble the ones in the standards Kansas adopted. ("Kansas Evolution Controversy Gives Rise To National Debate," Sept. 8, 1999.)

Avoiding Controversy

Language that requires teachers to debate evolution--like that in the performance standards New Mexico adopted three years ago--is a sign that religious conservatives are trying to wrest control of standards, according to one scientist who has reviewed all 50 states' standards.

"No real scientist is debating whether evolution is true or not," said Lawrence S. Lerner, a professor emeritus of physics at California State University-Long Beach. "They debate over the details."

Meanwhile, as New Mexico sought to clarify its position, Kentucky was hoping to avert controversy.

In reviewing Kentucky's science standards, the state education department decided not to insert the word "evolution," retaining existing references to "change over time" or "mutation."

Evolution "has a range of different meanings and creates emotional responses from folks," said Jim Parks, the department's press secretary. "We want to make this document available to a wide audience, and we want a wide audience to understand it."

Only one of three committees formed to recommend changes to the Kentucky science standards suggested that the word evolution be added to them. The state decided to keep its existing standards under its policy to avoid controversial topics in standards and assessments, Mr. Parks said.

Vol. 19, Issue 7, Page 20

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Web Resources
  • "A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools." This report from the First Amendment Center and the National PTA provides parents with an outline of religious liberty rights in public schools.
  • Read an ACLU legal bulletin on the issue of the establishment clause and public schools.
  • Letter to Superintendents. The May 1998 statement of principles from U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley to school districts around the nation addressing the extent to which religious expression and activity are permitted in public schools.
  • "The Supreme Court, Religion, and Public Education." This 1996 essay from the First Amendment Center explains aspects of the Supreme Court's role in providing an interpretation of the First Amendment's Religious Liberty clauses.
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