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Critics say students are taught creationism in two Austin schools

By Benjamin Wermund - American-Statesman Staff



A charter school operator with contracts to teach at two Austin high schools has come under fire for questioning evolution in its science curriculum — the latest in a long line of clashes over Christianity in Texas classrooms.

Advocates for the separation of church and state allege that Responsive Education Solutions — one of the state’s largest charter operators, which the Austin school district partners with at Lanier and Travis high schools — is pushing creationism and could be violating the First Amendment.

For example, the biology curriculum, obtained by the American-Statesman, says: “Many leading scientists are questioning the mechanisms of evolution and are disputing the long timeline required for evolutionary processes.”

Experts say that is simply untrue. But what’s more, they say, discrediting evolution invites students to consider creationism as an alternative.

The company’s CEO, Chuck Cook, says the curriculum merely provides a balanced look at differing opinions on the theory of evolution, as state curriculum standards require. Responsive Ed’s “science curriculum teaches evolution, noting, but not exploring, the existence of competing theories,” he has said.

Austin school officials are combing through the charter operator’s lesson plans, line by line, looking for any material that could be questionable, and they say they’ve found none so far. State officials, also reviewing Responsive Ed’s curriculum, say the same. Meanwhile, at least one national advocacy group plans to send cease-and-desist letters to Responsive Ed, which receives more than $80 million in state and federal funding. The group could eventually file suit against the charter schools.

The controversy gets to the core of church and state tensions that have long been present in Texas schools. The State Board of Education has drawn national attention for tinkering with science standards in a way that critics argue pushes Christianity. The issue also highlights the flexibility afforded to charter schools, which are privately managed public schools.

The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills curriculum guidelines, set by the state board, say, “In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations, by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.”

That standard caused a stir when it was written in 2009, and some argue the wording opened the door for the type of controversy now erupting over Responsive Ed.

Charter officials have pointed to the standard as evidence that they’re teaching what’s required.

“Our science curriculum does examine all sides of the scientific evidence relating to the theory of evolution — both for and against — just as we are required to do by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Biology,” Cook said in a letter to parents and staff responding to questions about the issue.

But those same state standards also explicitly require curriculum to be centered on scientific — not supernatural — explanations, said Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and an author of the Pearson-published “Biology” textbook, by lead authors Kenneth Miller Joseph Levine, that was approved by the state in November. The textbook doesn’t include any mentions of creationism because of that.

Some argue Responsive Ed’s curriculum crosses into creationism territory. For instance, a section called “Origin of Life” includes a quote from the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.”

“The notion that organisms were created is not a scientific explanation, but a supernatural one,” Miller said. “The TEKS standards are quite specific in requiring the scientific explanations. We thought that was following the letter of the TEKS, and the spirit of them.”

Miller said the textbook’s chapter on evolution is much longer in the Texas version than it is in the books published in any other state, because the Texas standards are so specific: “To be perfectly honest, when I saw the new TEKS, I thought, ‘Oh, Texas now wants us to write more about evolution than we ever had before.’”

Separation of church and state advocates argue that, whether the charter operator’s science lessons comply with state standards or not, they’re violating the First Amendment.

A string of court rulings dating back to the 1960s uniformly say that public schools can’t teach creationism, because it is a religious concept, said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which plans to push Responsive Ed to change its science curriculum.

By requiring science teachers to explore “all sides” of evolution theory, Texas has invited them to talk about creationism too, Boston said.

“The court rulings have been crystal clear,” Boston said. “Another thing to consider is that charter schools are public institutions. This curriculum, it fits in with what I would call the more modern attempts to bring creationism into the schools.”

Responsive Ed’s curriculum was first questioned in an article on Slate.com written byactivist Zack Kopplin, who says it teaches “stealth creationism” by seeking to discredit evolutionary theory.

“They will give you some evidence for it, but, right after that, say the evidence is weak,” Kopplin said in an interview with the American-Statesman. “They undercut all the evidence they provide.”

Students are “likely to see creationism as an alternative, so it’s effectively teaching creationism in the classroom,” he said.

So far, it’s unclear what has been taught in the charter operator’s Austin classrooms. Austin school officials are reviewing what students have been shown at Premier at Lanier and Travis, a credit recovery program run by the charter. The district didn’t do a full, in-depth review of the charter’s curriculum when it partnered with the company in 2011, and officials say they didn’t receive any complaints about the curriculum.

It’s unclear how long the review could take, but officials anticipate it to be a long process. Any questionable curriculum they find will be removed, they say.

“They’re going back and seeing what’s been taught each day,” district spokeswoman Tiffany Young said. “That is what they’re going to have to do, is go line by line.”

— This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of the Premier credit recovery program.


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