When the 107th Congress convened this January, the first piece of legislation introduced in both the House and Senate was an overhaul of federal elementary and secondary education programs. The bill designations of H.R.1 and S.1 reflected the high priority education received as a campaign issue for many members of Congress and especially for President Bush.
A cornerstone of the president’s education plan is school accountability achieved through regular testing for reading and math in grades 3 through 8. This approach alarmed science educators, because school districts and state boards of education are likely to concentrate classroom time and funds for professional teacher development on those subject areas where school performance is measured. Since only reading and math were to be tested, science was likely to suffer.
To address this problem, a provision was included in the original House and Senate bills to require science testing alongside reading and math. But when H.R.1 emerged from the Education and the Workforce Committee for debate on the House floor, science testing was gone. Although Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.) sought to have an amendment considered that would restore science testing, the House leadership never gave him the chance before the bill was put to a final vote on May 23.
What happened? No formal reason was given, but word slowly leaked out that a group of conservative lawmakers had asked that the science testing requirement be removed out of concern that the tests would include questions about a certain subject. What subject could cause such consternation? None other than evolution.
of the Senate’?
Meanwhile, across the Capitol, the Senate devoted six weeks of floor debate to S.1 from early May and into June. Science testing was not challenged, but on the next to last day of debate, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) rose to speak on an amendment that he had introduced the previous evening. He described the amendment, written in the form of a non-binding Senate resolution, as “two rather innocuous sentences:”
“It is the sense of the Senate that --The first clause is indeed rather innocuous, although it is worth noting that the inclusion of religion in addition to philosophy was the result of a last-minute addition to the original: the words “or religious” were literally penciled in on the printed copy of the amendment submitted to the clerk. The second clause is the more telling and troubling. It singles out biological evolution as a topic beset by controversy, and then insists that this controversy should be included in scientific instruction. Yet from a scientific standpoint, evolution is not controversial at all but is one of the most robust, comprehensive and well-tested theories we have. If political controversy is meant, then why limit the second clause to evolution? Many areas of science, such as climate change and stem cell research, are embroiled in political debates. Finally, why should the Senate suddenly involve itself in a debate that has heretofore been limited to state and local levels?
“(1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and
“(2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.”
These questions were not addressed. After making his remarks, Santorum asked for a formal roll call vote to put the Senate on record. The resulting vote was 91-8 in favor of the amendment. The only senators who opposed it were all Republicans who felt the amendment was an unwarranted federal intrusion into a local issue.
To understand why the vote was so lopsided, we must view it in context. Floor debate for S. 1 was managed by the chairman and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee: Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). The managers determine who gets to speak and which amendments are considered. For a major piece of legislation like S.1, the number of amendments run into the hundreds, and senators often rely on the managers for guidance on how to vote. Accepting Santorum’s assurance that the amendment was “innocuous,” Kennedy endorsed it because it encouraged children to “examine various scientific theories on the basis of all the information that is available to them.” Faced with dozens of votes on amendments that day, most senators simply followed the leader. Not until later would they find out what (and who) was behind the amendment.
behind the curtain
It did not take long for the true purpose behind Santorum’s amendment to emerge. Groups opposed to the teaching of evolution were quick to claim victory. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) stated that the Senate vote vindicated the original 1999 Kansas school board decision that removed evolution and the age of Earth from state tests. University of California at Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, a leading proponent of Intelligent Design (ID) creationism, told The Washington Times that he had met with Santorum earlier in the month and helped to draft the amendment at the senator’s request.
Johnson’s involvement with the amendment is to be expected. He has written extensively about driving a wedge into evolutionary theory, exposing its weaknesses and then replacing it with ID theory (which holds that the irreducible complexity of living organisms must reflect the work of an intelligent designer). The wedge strategy calls for breaking evolution’s intellectual hold in this country, with Congress as one of the key targets. Johnson was one of several prominent ID leaders who spoke last summer at a Capitol Hill briefing that summarized the failings of evolutionary theory, the moral degradation that it encourages, and the promise of their alternative theory (see Geotimes, July 2000). The briefing was troubling on two counts: first, it brought an issue to Congress that had previously been debated at the state and local levels; and second, the briefing took place as the House was working on education reform legislation -- the forerunner of H.R.1. The events of this summer confirm concerns expressed at the time that the briefing signaled the opening of a new political front by evolution opponents.
Congressional staff spent much of the August recess hammering out compromises between the House and Senate education bills. A joint House-Senate conference committee is meeting in early September to work out the final deal, which will then be presented to both houses and, if passed, sent to the president. With broad bipartisan support, science testing should make it into the final bill. Its clandestine removal in the House was not attempted in the Senate, and science educators have launched a major effort to ensure its enactment into law.
Because Santorum’s amendment is a non-binding resolution, its inclusion in the Senate bill is purely symbolic. But evolution opponents will use their symbolic victory to push for more tangible gains in future legislation.
Since the bill emerging from the House-Senate conference will replace the earlier Senate version, conferees can take a symbolic stand by dropping the resolution from the final bill. The American Geological Institute and other scientific and educational organizations have asked conferees to do just that, citing the unfairness of singling out evolution as a controversial theory, the manner in which the Senate vote has been used by evolution opponents and the dangerous precedent that the resolution sets for congressional involvement in the evolution debate.
Whether or not Santorum’s handiwork ends up in the final bill, the ease
with which he enlisted his colleagues’ support shows that we have a long-term
challenge to sensitize congressional education staff to the evolution debate.
We must make sure that future anti-evolution efforts -- clandestine or
otherwise -- will be opposed by supporters of genuine “good science education.”
For an update on the evolution debate in Congress and the states, see www.agiweb.org/gap/legis107/evolution.html.