TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

June 6, 2013

Controversy simmering over learning standards


The Times-Tribune

CORBIN — By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service

There may yet be controversy over proposed new learning standards about climate and natural selection for Kentucky public school students but it wasn’t evident Wednesday at the Kentucky Board of Education meeting.

The board gave second reading to the New Generation Science Standards, part of the new standards the state is adopting to comply with Senate Bill 1, a measure passed by the legislature to require Kentucky students compete with national and international students.

But while some members of the legislature, including Republican Sen. Mike Wilson of Bowling Green who chairs the Senate Education Committee, have questioned the new standards on climate and natural selection, only those favoring them spoke to the board Wednesday.

“Evolution and climate science are politically controversial but they are not scientifically controversial,” said Robert Bevins who has a Ph.D. in toxicology and heads a group called Kentuckians for Science. “Evidence does not lie and the results are often not the ones we want.”

Bevins said the board should approve the new standards to make Kentucky students competitive with students from other states and around the world and because a better educated workforce will help attract technology and science based companies to Kentucky.

Five others also urged the board to adopt the standards while no one formally addressed the board in opposition.

But Richard Innes of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions said he is concerned about one of the standards dealing with climate and the effect of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases.

“It doesn’t say it’s a theory,” Innes said. “It says it is to be taught as a fact.”

Innes said there are scientists who remain skeptical about the effects of carbon emissions on global warming and if the idea is accepted as fact it could have a devastating impact on a major Kentucky industry — coal mining.

One of the disciplinary core ideas contained in the high school standards for climate says: “Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate . . .”

Nancy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the standards might be inferred as claiming fact but don’t explicitly say human activity is the indisputable cause.

“The current science standards address weather and climate and the mechanisms that are responsible for both,” she said. “Any connection between human activities and these mechanisms are not explicit in the standards but might possibly be inferred.”

Rodriguez said the standards on evolution or natural selection are the same as existing standards.

Wilson, the Republican Senator, recently wrote an op-ed for The Courier-Journal questioning whether the new standards would offend those whose religious beliefs include divine creation. He also questioned the validity of the scientific theory.

More than one board member, however, pointed out Wednesday that the new standards are a reaction to SB 1 which was authored and pushed in the Republican Senate.

Board Chairman David Karem, who once served in the General Assembly, said the standards reflect what he heard from conservative lawmakers for years.

“There was a constant push — and sometimes from the most conservative members — to be sure we could compare ourselves against other states,” Karem said.

The standards were developed by Kentucky and 26 other states and educators in those states and not the federal government, Karem said.

The science standards will eventually be written into a new regulation by the Legislative Research Commission and a period of public comment will be available before the regulation is presented to lawmakers.

Standards for English, language arts and math are already in place and being used in Kentucky schools.

Board member William Twyman read a report on the nation’s best high schools which named the Gatton Academy at Western Kentucky University the best in the nation. Among the best high schools in Kentucky named in the report was Corbin High School.

Hiren Desai, associate commissioner for Administration and Support, told the board that the financially troubled Breathitt County District has cut expenditures by more than $900,000 and increased attendance.

He also reported that Monticello Independent and Wayne County boards of education are negotiating a merger arrangement and have “done a phenomenal job.”

The boards have agreed on a school configuration and will convert the Monticello Independent High School into the Monticello Independent Grade School where all the merged district’s elementary students will attend.

The boards have also avoided layoffs of any tenured staff but eight classified and 15 non-tenured certified staff were not re-hired. Desai said some of those are likely to be rehired – but not all.

Meanwhile, ACT scores increased for students “despite the turmoil” surrounding merger, Desai said, “a real testament to those students.”

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.