Paul Cottle

The controversy over teaching evolution spread to Florida in late 2007 as a committee of 61 people—nearly all scientists and science educators—labored over new standards for science instruction in the state’s K-12 public schools. The climax was reached on Feb. 19, 2008, when the State Board of Education voted by a narrow margin to accept standards nearly identical to those recommended by the committee, including clear statements that evolution must be taught to Florida’s children. The 4-to-3 board vote to accept the standards was clinched by an 11th-hour semantic change that replaced the word “evolution” with “scientific theory of evolution” wherever it appeared in the draft standards submitted by the standards committee. Similar language was inserted for all other major scientific concepts to avoid appearing to single out evolution. Public reaction to the compromise was sharply divided.

The debate did not end there, as legislation was filed in both the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate on Feb. 29 that would have allowed the discussion of creationist and intelligent design viewpoints and would have protected students and teachers who did not accept evolution from being penalized. In practice, this could have gutted the standards on evolution. However, amendments made to both bills and the inability of members of the House and Senate to reconcile their different versions of the bill effectively ended the threat to evolution education for the year.

Paul Cottle is a professor of physics at Florida State University and a member of the committee appointed by the Florida Department of Education to draft new science standards for the state’s primary and secondary public schools.