Science

Calif. District to Scrap Course on ‘Intelligent Design’

By Sean Cavanagh — January 24, 2006 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In the first legal skirmish over “intelligent design” since a federal judge declared it to be illegitimate science, a rural Southern California school system has agreed to drop an elective philosophy course presenting the highly charged topic.

The El Tejon Unified School District will end its Philosophy of Design course as part of a legal settlement with 11 parents and an advocacy group.

The agreement, announced by both sides Jan. 17, also bars the district from attempting to promote or endorse intelligent design, or creationism, in any future course.

Philosophy and Funding

In a statement issued Jan. 17, Superintendent John W. Wight explains the decision by California’s El Tejon school district to drop the course Philosophy of Design.

“Neither the school board or its employees have promoted any religious belief in any academic setting. The idea was to have an open discussion of the different points of views on the origin of life, a philosophical exercise in critical thinking. We believe in the right setting, social and cultural issues should be discussed and studied. They have educational value and require some academic freedom. We support our educational staff and their endeavors to bring issues to our students that confront our country and society today. However, we are a small school district with limited financial resources and cannot afford to spend the amount of economic funds to defend the Philosophy of Design class in the court system.”

SOURCE: El Tejon Unified School District

“Whatever debate goes on about the merits or demerits of intelligent design, that debate will go on somewhere else,” said Peter C. Carton, a lawyer for the El Tejon district. “Life goes on.”

El Tejon’s school board voted 3-2 on Jan. 1 to offer the course as part of a regular, monthlong class staged between the first and second semesters, according to court documents. That class was being taught at Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec, Calif., this month.

Parents in the 1,400-student district, joined by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington advocacy group, filed suit to halt the course shortly after the district announced the offering. They argued that it amounted to an unconstitutional insertion of religion into the public school curriculum.

The El Tejon controversy emerged less than a month after a federal judge issued a landmark ruling declaring that the Dover, Pa., school district had violated the U.S. Constitution in requiring students to be introduced to intelligent design. In addition, the judge concluded that intelligent design is religion, not valid science. (“Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

Even though the Dover decision has legal standing only in the jurisdiction where it was issued, legal observers say it is likely to influence how schools across the country broach the topic.

Choosing a Setting

Intelligent design is the belief that an unidentified force has guided the development of living things, including humans, whose complexity, the proponents argue, cannot otherwise be explained. The theory of evolution, accepted by the vast majority of scientists, states that life has developed over billions of years through natural selection and random mutation.

Officials in El Tejon, a collection of communities scattered across the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles, argued that the Philosophy of Design course did not promote intelligent design, or biblically based creationism, as a viable alternative to evolution.

But in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs cited a course description that said students would discuss “the scientific, biological, and biblical aspects” suggesting that evolution is “is not rock solid.” Students would also talk about evidence suggesting that Earth is “thousands of years old,” according to the course description, as quoted in the lawsuit.

Most scientists believe Earth is at least 3 billion to 4 billion years old. Suggestions that it dates back only thousands of years, by contrast, are often associated with “young Earth” creationism, or other religiously based beliefs about the planet’s origins.

The design course in El Tejon will be compressed and end a week early, said Mr. Carton, the district’s lawyer. Students will still receive credit for it, though it will no longer be offered in the future, he said.

Many legal experts have said that discussing the design concept in a social studies or comparative-religion class is more legally defensible than attempting to present it as science. (“Some Schools Adding Evolution ‘Alternatives’ to Social Studies Class,” Sept. 21, 2005.)

Yet discussing intelligent design outside science classes puts schools on safer legal ground only if the concept is presented as a belief and not as a scientific view on an equal footing with evolution, said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum, in Arlington, Va.

“They can’t set up a course to do in social studies what they can’t do in science,” said Mr. Haynes, whose organization studies constitutional issues.

‘Enormous Relief’

El Tejon Superintendent John W. Wight defended the course in a Jan. 6 letter to Americans United, vowing to prevent any instructor from “teaching or advocating the tenets of any religion or creed, including intelligent design.”

But in a statement last week explaining the settlement, the superintendent cited the potentially daunting legal costs associated with defending the course.

El Tejon has an annual budget of roughly $10 million, according to recent data from the state. Paula Harvey, a middle school English teacher in the district who opposed the class, acknowledged that having a course that discussed intelligent design would be “well supported” in the El Tejon community. But Ms. Harvey, who is also the president of the local teachers’ union, said she was pleased that the district had avoided a long, divisive legal battle.

“We feel enormous relief as teachers,” she said, “that we can get back to the jobs we’re doing.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Calif. District to Scrap Course on ‘Intelligent Design’

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
When SEL Curriculum Is Not Enough: Integrating Social-Emotional Behavior Supports in MTSS
Help ensure the success of your SEL program with guidance for building capacity to support implementation at every tier of your MTSS.
Content provided by Illuminate Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Science How the Webb Telescope Can Take Students Back a Long Time Ago, to Galaxies Far, Far Away
Educators can use the show-stopping images to teach about astronomy, the scientific method, and how a big project comes together.
5 min read
This image released by NASA on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, shows the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA.
This image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region in the Carina Nebula and reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA.
NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI via AP
Science What the Research Says Teaching Students to Understand the Uncertainties of Science Could Help Build Public Trust
Scientists want schools to do more to help students appreciate how uncertainty and variation builds scientific knowledge.
5 min read
Photo of teacher answering question from student.
Getty
Science How to Close the STEM Achievement Gap for Indigenous Students: Feature Local Culture
Study examines factors that will positively impact Indigenous students' STEM proficiency.
2 min read
Image shows a young student working on a laptop with a teacher.
E+/Getty
Science 4 Teaching Ideas Students Will Benefit From Now and as Adults
Problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking are being integrated into STEM instruction in very creative and relevant ways.
2 min read
Students in the aviation program at Magruder High School take a look at the exposed engine of an airplane during a visit to the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Md., on April 6, 2022.
Students in the aviation program at Magruder High School in Rockville, Md., examine the exposed engine of an airplane during a visit to the nearby Montgomery County Airpark in April.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week