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FYI Number 81: June 28, 2001

Senate Approves ESEA Amendment Regarding Evolution

A day before passing its version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (H.R. 1), the Senate voted overwhelmingly (91-8) to approve a non-binding "Sense of the Senate" amendment offered by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) regarding the teaching of biological evolution. The amendment was approved on June 13 by all of the Democrats who were present and all but eight of the Republicans present; those eight reportedly opposed it as inappropriate federal intrusion into a local matter.

Many supporters probably agreed with Ted Kennedy (D-MA) when he stated that the amendment "talks about using good science to consider the teaching of biological evolution." However, it is worth noting reports that proponents of intelligent design - the idea that the design of the universe was guided by a higher intelligence - played a role in helping Santorum craft the amendment language. Santorum, who is the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, quoted a well-known supporter of intelligent design, David DeWolf, during his floor speech on the amendment, and another intelligent design proponent, Phillip Johnson, is quoted by the Washington Times as saying, "I offered some language to Senator Santorum after he had decided to propose a resolution of this sort."

The amendment states:

"It is the sense of the Senate that (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."

Senators Santorum, Kennedy, Robert Byrd (D-WV), and Sam Brownback (R-KS) spoke about this amendment on the floor. Selections from their remarks follow:

SANTORUM:  "It is a sense of the Senate that deals with the subject of intellectual freedom with respect to the teaching of science in the classroom.... It is a sense of the Senate that does not try to dictate curriculum to anybody; quite the contrary, it says there should be freedom to discuss and air good scientific debate within the classroom. In fact, students will do better and will learn more if there is this intellectual freedom to discuss.... It simply says there are disagreements in scientific theories out there that are continually tested. Our knowledge of science is not absolute, obviously. We continue to test theories. Over the centuries, there were theories that were once assumed to be true and have been proven, through further revelation of scientific investigation and testing, to be not true.

"One of the things I thought was important in putting this forward was to make sure the Senate of this country...was on record saying we are for this kind of intellectual freedom; we are for this kind of discussion going on; it will enhance the quality of science education for our students.

"I will read three points made by one of the advocates of this thought, a man named David DeWolf, as to the advantages of teaching this controversy that exists. He says: Several benefits will accrue from a more open discussion of biological origins in the science classroom. First, this approach will do a better job of teaching the issue itself, both because it presents more accurate information about the state of scientific thinking and evidence, and because it presents the subject in a more lively and less dogmatic way. Second, this approach gives students greater appreciation for how science is actually practiced. Science necessarily involves the interpretation of data; yet scientists often disagree about how to interpret their data. By presenting this scientific controversy realistically, students will learn how to evaluate competing interpretations in light of evidence - a skill they will need as citizens, whether they choose careers in science or other fields. Third, this approach will model for students how to address differences of opinion through reasoned discussion within the context of a pluralistic society.

"I think there are many benefits to this discussion that we hope to encourage in science classrooms across this country. I frankly don't see any down side to this discussion - that we are standing here as the Senate in favor of intellectual freedom and open and fair discussion of using science -not philosophy and religion within the context...of science but science - as the basis for this determination."

KENNEDY: "[O]n the Santorum amendment, I hope all of our colleagues will vote in support of it. It talks about using good science to consider the teaching of biological evolution. I think the way the Senator described it, as well as the language itself, is completely consistent with what represents the central values of this body. We want children to be able to speak and examine various scientific theories on the basis of all of the information that is available to them so they can talk about different concepts and do it intelligently with the best information that is before them. I think the Senator [Santorum] has expressed his views in support of the amendment and the reasons for it. I think they make eminently good sense. I intend to support that proposal."

BYRD: "I have been interested in the debate surrounding the teaching of evolution in our schools. I think that Senator Santorum's amendment will lead to a more thoughtful treatment of this topic in the classroom. It is important that students be exposed not only to the theory of evolution, but also to the context in which it is viewed by many in our society."

"Scientists today have numerous theories about our world and its beginnings. I, personally, have been greatly impressed by the many scientists who have probed and dissected scientific theory and concluded that some Divine force had to have played a role in the birth of our magnificent universe. These ideas align with my way of thinking. But I understand that they might not align with someone else's. That is the very point of this amendment - to support an airing of varying opinions, ideas, concepts, and theories. If education is truly a vehicle to broaden horizons and enhance thinking, varying viewpoints should be welcome as part of the school experience."

BROWNBACK: "I would like to take the opportunity of this amendment to clear the record about the controversy in Kansas.... Here are the facts about what happened in Kansas. The school board did not ban the teaching of evolution. They did not forbid the mention of Darwin in the classroom. They didn't even remove all mention of evolution from the State assessment test. Rather, the school board voted against including questions on macro- evolution - the theory that new species can evolve from existing species over time - from the State assessment. The assessment did include questions on micro-evolution - the observed change over time within an existing species.

"Why did they do this? Why go so far as to decipher between micro and macro-evolution on the State exam?... In fact, their vote was cast based on the most basic scientific principal that science is about what we observe, not what we assume. The great and bold statement that the Kansas School Board made was that simply that we observe micro-evolution and therefore it is scientific fact; and that it is impossible to observe macro- evolution, it is scientific assumption..... The actions and intentions of the school board were routinely misrepresented in the global press. Many in the scientific community, who presumably knew the facts, spread misinformation as to what happened in Kansas.... For this reason, I am very pleased that my friend from Pennsylvania offered this amendment. He clarifies the opinion of the Senate that the debate of scientific fact versus scientific assumption is an important debate to embrace."

The House version of ESEA does not include similar language. Differences in the two versions of H.R. 1 will need to be worked out in a House-Senate conference, which is expected after Members return from the July 4 recess, which runs from July 2-6.

Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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