S.C. Education Department out of the loop in writing of new evolution standard

- A Seattle-based organization that promotes intelligent design knew South Carolina officials were drafting an evolution standard before the Department of Education was informed.

The State Board of Education will vote Wednesday on newly written standards being touted as a compromise that encourages critical thinking, according to proponents. The problem is that the usual standards-writing procedure was not followed, and the Education Department was left out of the loop.

In fact, the agency learned of the July 30 meeting - the date officials were to discuss the newly drafted language - at 5:27 p.m. July 23. By that time, new language had been drafted already.

"Why would they (the Education Department) have to be involved?" asked Board Chairman Barry Bolen. "They don't approve the standards."

The Education Department does not approve standards. But it is the agency tasked with writing education standards, and it had no involvement in the writing of the draft headed for the board's approval. The S.C. Education Oversight Committee invited the Education Department to provide input on the new language at its July 30 meeting.

Even one of the members of the board - Larry Kobrovsky - was unaware that members of the EOC and the Board of Education had met to draft new language.

"My thought was that we voted on it," Kobrovsky said. "I thought the conclusion was that we have very good science standards and that's it."

In June, the board rejected a proposal that required biology students to construct scientific arguments that seem to support and seem to discredit Darwinism. Because neither side could agree, the state reverted to its 2005 standards. During that June hearing, two members of the Discovery Institute spoke before the board by invitation of Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville.

The Discovery Institute is based in Seattle. Its mission is to "advance a culture of purpose, creativity and innovation," according to its website. Among its "study and activity areas," it states the institute "seeks to counter the materialistic interpretation of science by demonstrating that life and the universe are the products of intelligent design."

A week after the meeting, a staffer at the Discovery Institute wrote a blog post June 18 headlined "Slowly, Slowly South Carolina Hammers Out a New Science Standard." In the body of the story, the staffer wrote the board and the EOC "may convene a special panel to amend (the standard) to better carry out the purpose of the standard, which is to increase opportunities for critical inquiry in K-12 science education."

Fair, who has been against the adoption of the original language proposed by the Education Department earlier this year, could not say why the Discovery Institute knew of the panel and the new draft before the agency, or of the institute's potential involvement in the draft of the standards.

"They were aware, they came, they spoke at the meeting," Fair said of the Education Department. "When should they have found out?"

When told The Discovery Institute has not returned repeated calls requesting comment, Fair said, "they won't."

The compromise going before the board Wednesday requires students to understand that the theory of evolution, like any other scientific theory, may change as new scientific information is obtained.

That's precisely what worries Rob Dillon, a professor of biology at the College of Charleston and president of South Carolinians for Science Education. It's no compromise, he said, because it singles out evolution.

"The idea is simply to make evolution controversial," Dillon said. "They simply cast doubt on evolutionary science."

What way the board will vote today is anyone's guess. Kobrovsky said he expects the board to once again reject the newly proposed language. Fair and Bolen said they expect the board to approve it.

"The courts are clear," Fair said. "We can't go where a lot of folks would like to go in the General Assembly. We beat around the bush the best we can do. ... The classroom will not be harmed if they choose to reject it; it certainly won't be harmed if they accept it."

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.