Teaching Evolution in Florida

Decision by education officials is seen as a victory for science.

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The state Board of Education voted 4 to 3, with Chairman T. Willard Fair casting the final tie-breaking vote, in favor of teaching evolution.

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Florida's state Board of Education decided yesterday on a compromise solution to the tumultuous question of how, or whether, to teach evolution in classrooms. Whereas the word was once an unmentionable in the Sunshine State—though teaching biological "changes" was sanctioned—evolution now will be explicitly taught by name. The so-called compromise? It must be phrased the "scientific theory of evolution." That's just fine with scientists, for whom the word theory means a testable truth.

"We see [yesterday's decision] as a victory for high-quality science education," says Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "My only concern is that 'theory' might be used as a wedge to start teaching controversy where there is no controversy." Indeed, biologists are finding the evidence of evolution only more convincing. But that hasn't quelled the brawls in school boards across the country or tamped public debate.

According to a recent poll by the St. Petersburg Times, just 22 percent of Florida parents want an evolution-only curriculum compared with 50 percent who want their children to instructed only with faith-based theories.

At Tuesday's school board hearing, that divide was evident by frequent boos, hisses, and cheers from those gathered to promote their points of view, on both sides. Fittingly, the school board was also split, narrowly passing the approved language by a vote of 4 to 3. Evolution supporters are calling it a win, but in a sign of just how deep feelings run on the issue, one of the board's most passionate supporters of teaching evolution, Roberto Martinez, voted against it. He argued that insisting on referring to evolution as a theory would only cause confusion in the classroom. That means the next argument in this evolving debate may be over a different word: theory.