A long-simmering controversy over the teaching of alternatives to the theory of evolution has boiled over in Texas, leading to the resignation of the state's long-time director of science curriculum.
Christine Castillo Comer, who served as the Texas Education Authority's (TEA) top science curriculum official for nine years, resigned abruptly on November 7 after a dispute with other TEA officials over an e-mail Comer sent out announcing an upcoming talk by Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Less than two hours after Comer sent out the announcement, she was called into her superior's office and told that Lizzette Reynolds, the Texas deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs, considered Comer's e-mail "an offense that calls for termination."
Reynolds, who previously worked as a deputy legislative director under Governor George W. Bush and then in the U.S. Department of Education, believed that Comer's e-mail implied an endorsement of Forrest and her views on intelligent design. Comer was placed on administrative leave and submitted her resignation a week later.
Intelligent Design vs. Evolution
The theory of intelligent design, which posits that various aspects of nature are so complicated that they could only be the result of conscious design choices, was soundly denounced in 2005 as a mere front for creationism in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a lawsuit that challenged a Pennsylvania school board's promotion of the theory in district biology classes.
Forrest is a co-author of "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse," a book that is highly critical of the "intelligent design" movement as an effort by religious conservatives to offer a scientifically based challenge to evolution in secondary school curricula. Forrest also provided critical expert testimony in the Kitzmiller case.
According to Pam Chamberlain, senior researcher at Political Research Associates, a Massachusetts-based think tank that studies the religious right, the battle in Texas is part of a much larger and longer-running battle.
"The k-12 education system has been fraught with controversy for decades," Chamberlain said, "reaching all the way back to the Scopes Trial in 1925. These battles don't take place just at the intersection of religion and science; there has been a concerted effort by conservative groups to put their imprint at all levels and on all subjects, including history, science, and civics."
Up for 10 Year Review
Many in Texas consider Comer's departure particularly suspicious given the fact that the state's science standards, which currently require the teaching of evolution, are up for review in a few months. It is widely anticipated that factions favoring the teaching of intelligent design will push to include the controversial theory in the state's science curriculum, or at the very least, weaken the requirement that evolution be taught.
"Politicizing the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the education of children in public schools, would be a monumental mistake," the Austin American-Statesman editorialized. "Whether one accepts the theory of intelligent design or not, discussion encourages scientific exploration, which is what a science curriculum director should do. Forcing Comer out of her job because she passed on an e-mail about the critic's presentation is egregiously wrong."