Religiously motivated questioning of evolution isn’t considered textbook science yet, at least not in Darby’s educational curriculum. But on March 8, the five-member school board will make the heavy decision of what subject matter to offer in science classes to the next generation of students.
The first reading of the proposed policy change produced three days of public comment and resulted in a 3–2 decision from the board that has divided the community. As Darby gears up for a final reading of the policy changes, talk around town doesn’t stray far from the topic.
It’s core conversation in the teachers’ lunchroom. Girls’ basketball games have morphed into strategy sessions for parents and teachers. There’s even a curious New York Times reporter holed up in Bud & Shirley’s Motel.
Most important for the school is the rumor awash around the south end of the Bitterroot that as many as 30 families may want to yank their children from the Darby school system if the proposal passes. Aware of what could prove a financially (the school receives about $5,000 per student each year) and emotionally devastating blow to the system, school staff are wary of the school board bulling ahead with an “Intelligent Design” curriculum without understanding the ramifications of its actions.
“I’ve heard there are as many as 30 families thinking of taking their kids out of the district,” junior high and high school science teacher Karen Hedges said. “That breaks my heart. We have a good school. On top of losing good kids, that’s a lot of money. Then we’ll lose staff.”
Elementary Principal Doug Mann is upset with the prospect of Darby driving students from its district. Many of the families considering the move have kids in the elementary school.
“That could be potentially quite devastating to our funding,” Mann said. “I’m not happy about it at all. We need to proceed with a lot more caution. There are a lot of unforeseen impacts that could occur.”
Hedges doesn’t want people to be “hasty” (the Hamilton school district has already begun fielding calls from comparison-shopping Darby parents) because the process isn’t over yet. Even if the second reading passes, the makeup of the board could change before any new policy is implemented. On May 4, the community will re-elect the seats currently occupied by Bob Wetzsteon, who voted against the policy change, and chair Gina Schallenberger, who voted for it.
“Some of our board members aren’t acting in the best interest of the school,” Hedges said. “I think they’re acting out of religious conviction to do the right thing, and that’s a powerful motivator.”
Hedges and a group of educators from the school recently began circulating a petition against the policy change amongst the staff, with the intention of presenting it to the school board at the second reading. In two days they’ve gotten 30 signatures from a staff of around 70.
Specifically, the board’s proposed policy encourages teachers to “help students assess evidence for and against theories, to analyze the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories, including the Theory of Evolution, by giving examples of scientific innovation or discovery challenging commonly held perceptions.”
Minister Curtis Brickley originally presented the notion to Darby with a presentation that detailed the highly controversial origin theory of “Intelligent Design,” called “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” by skeptics. Though Brickley and the board have backed away from any language including the hot-button words “Intelligent Design,” no curriculum to accompany the policy change has yet been made public, and may include such radical origin theories.
“They’re putting the cart before the horse,” opponent and board member Mary Lovejoy said. “How can you pass a policy without knowing what sort of curriculum they intend to propose?”
Aware of the issue’s potential to set precedent for the rest of the state and country, both sides of the controversy have drawn national experts into the debate. While a flurry of activity to pry evolutionary theory from the cornerstone of science curriculums currently exists across the nation, the actions under consideration in Darby are considered pioneering.
Many think that the school board’s move is fueled by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization committed to implementing such educational policy changes. To help combat the proposed policy, concerned parents have looked to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, a group committed to fighting those changes.
The Darby school board has also received a commitment from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), in Scottsdale, Ariz., for a lawyer to defend the board should it be sued. ADF’s mission is to facilitate “the spread of Gospel.” Lovejoy calls such work “litigation for the Lord.” A meeting was scheduled for last Tuesday, just after the Independent’s deadline, for the board to hear its options from the ADF councilor, Lincoln’s Bridgett Erickson.
“Darby may just be the test case,” NCSE Network Project Director Skip Evans said. “If this is really about science, why is a religious organization involved in it? There’s much more at stake than teaching evolution. This is about winning souls.”
While ADF will not charge a fee to represent the board, Darby, should it lose a legal challenge, will be liable for any claims, costs, opposing attorney’s fees or expenses awarded by the court, ADF said in a letter. In a region that’s not exactly tax-happy, the board may have to levy a tax to pay for such an outcome.
Seth Cooper, a member of the legal affairs team at the Discovery Institute, said, “We oppose any sort of push into the courts with this thing. We feel confident, based on court precedent, that it is constitutional to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s theory. Some might challenge that assertion, in which case we’ll stand up for the defendants. But, that’s not what it’s about for us.”
For students, however, the debate is about an education that will let them hit the ground running in college science courses. As of press time, a student walkout protest was being planned by senior Aaron Lebowitz for the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 25.
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