Alternative to Darwinism to be taught in Kansas schools

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The contentious debate over the teaching of Creationism in US schools has received fresh fuel following a decision by officials in Kansas that strongly encourages teachers to teach an alternative to Darwinism in the state's schools.

The Kansas Board of Education voted 6-4 to adopt a new series of standards for the science curriculum taught in schools. Tuesday's vote will redefine "science" to say that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena; in short, science no longer means scientific. Students will be expected to know about alternative theories to evolution.

"This is a sad day, not just for Kansas kids but for Kansas," Janet Waugh of Kansas City, one of four dissenting board members, told reporters. "We're becoming a laughing stock not only of the nation but of the world."

The vote in Kansas took place against the backdrop of a national debate over whether alternatives to Darwinism should be taught in the nation's schools.

Challenges to the teaching of Darwinism have come largely from proponents of so-called Intelligent Design (ID) a theory that states that life is fundamentally too complex not to have involved a "supernatural" creator.

Critics of this theory say it is little more than a repackaged version of Creationism, which the Supreme Court decided in 1987 was a religious belief that could not be taught alongside evolution. While this ruling stands, current polls that suggest that up to 45 per cent of Americans believe that God made mankind in its current form at some point within the last 10,000.years.

The debate has taken new energy in recent years as the religious right has started to increasingly flex its political muscle. Earlier this year President George Bush sparked fresh controversy when he said he believed "both sides" should be taught in schools. "Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," he said.

Opponents of ID believe that what happened in Kansas will be repeated elsewhere. "This action is likely to be the play-book for creationism for the next several years," said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Centre for Science Education. "We can predict this fight happening elsewhere."

Indeed, Kansas is just one of several battlegrounds in the evolution debate.

In Dover, Pennsylvania, a judge is poised to rule on case in which a group of parents challenged the local school board which had insisted that pupils be told about ID. Ironically, on the same day that the Kansas school board voted to introduce ID, all eight members of the Dover school board were voted out in a local election.

Among the members who lost their seats were two of the most staunch proponents of ID. Bernadette Reinking, a retired nurse and one of the newly elected members of the board, told the New York Times: "I think voters were tired of the trial. I think they were tired of everything that this school board brought about and they wanted the change."

In Kansas, it is the local school boards rather than the state education board that mandates what will be taught to school students. However, the state education board decides what students are expected to know for state assessment tests. The new standards will be in effect starting in 2008.

Some educators fear there will be pressure to teach less about evolution and more about Creationism or ID. "What this does is open the door for teachers to bring Creationist arguments into the classroom and point to the standards and say it's OK," Jack Krebs, an Oskaloosa High School maths teacher, told the Associated Press.