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Schools chief debate centers on teaching of intelligent design

Republican contenders for state school superintendent face off Wednesday at KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate. From left are Frank Riggs, Bob Branch, Diane Douglas, host Ted Simons, Jonathan Gelbart and Tracy Livingston. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Republican contenders for state school superintendent face off Wednesday at KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate. From left are Frank Riggs, Bob Branch, Diane Douglas, host Ted Simons, Jonathan Gelbart and Tracy Livingston. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Three of the Republicans hoping to be state school superintendent want students exposed to and taught “intelligent design,” but not necessarily as part of the science curriculum.

“I personally believe in intelligent design,” said Bob Branch who educates teachers at two different Christian universities. And Branch said looking through a microscope an element shows “there’s architect and there’s design.”

“I’m not saying that we have to put it in terms of was there creationism,” he said during a televised debate Wednesday among all the Republican contenders. But Branch said schools should be able to teach it.

The issue has taken on importance since incumbent schools chief Diane Douglas earlier this year proposed changes in high school science standards to remove some references to “evolution” and require elsewhere that it be taught only as theory.

“I personally believe that there is a place for intelligent design in instruction,” Douglas said Wednesday. She said the standards are being written “to allow our students to learn all the truths about evolution,” saying there is not just one theory.

But Douglas, who came under some criticism for the proposal, said she believes that the state Board of Education which has the final say will put various “theories of the creation of the universe” instead into courses on world religions.

That is the path suggested by former California Congressman Frank Riggs.

“The scientific theory of evolution belongs in biology or anthropology classes,” he said. But Riggs’ position also has a religious spin of sorts in what students should learn.

“They absolutely have to learn that our Founding Fathers believed in a Creator, they put it in the Declaration of Independence,” Riggs continued. And all that — including the concept of intelligent design — should be taught in history and government classes.

And Riggs said after the debate that means having one theory taught in science class and another in civics.

“That’s what education’s about, right?” he said.

But Tracy Livingston, a public school teacher, said she sees it from the perspective of the needs of students.

“When we teach the science in the science classrooms and you go further into high school and further into college, what do they need to know?” she said. “The study of the scientific theories of evolution.”

But Livingston, who is currently on the board of the Maricopa Community Colleges, sought to minimize the impact of any change. She said even if the standards are changed, teachers will still teach evolution to their students.

Jonathan Gelbart, who worked as director of charter school development for BASIS charter schools, agreed.

“Science classes should be reserved for science,” he said. Gelbart said if schools want to tell students about religious theories of how life on Earth evolved that should be reserved for history or literature classes.

Much of the hour-long debate at KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate, had Douglas, as the current officeholder, on the defensive.

“We can’t afford four more years of a failed and ineffective incumbent,” said Riggs.

Livingston said she voted for Douglas in 2014. But now, she said, the Department of Education that Douglas runs is “a bloated, out-of-touch area.”

Gelbart said Douglas is at least partly to blame for a federal audit that found her agency had used an incorrect formula to give federal dollars to Title I schools — those with a higher percentage of students from low-income households — which resulted in a mistake of $85 million. Worse yet, he said, the problem was known in 2015 but only made public two years later.

“Anybody can get up here and say anything based on whatever they think their evidence is,” Douglas responded. She said her agency was simply implementing formulas that had been around for years before she took office.

And Douglas said she brought in auditors “to make sure all the errors of the past had been corrected.”

Douglas also sought to deflect criticism by some of her foes that she was not an active player in education policy and did not use her “bully pulpit” to advocate.

She pointed out that she was the only elected statewide official who actually came up with a plan to boost the state sales tax by four-tenths of a percent, a move she said would have, by itself, provided a guaranteed source of dollars for an 11 percent increase in teacher pay. And that was proposed long before Gov. Doug Ducey came up with his plan to boost teacher pay by 19 percent by 2020, though there is no new revenue source to fund it.

None of the candidates said they agreed with the decision of teachers who walked out of their classrooms as part of the #RedForEd movement.

But Riggs said that had it not been for the strike the governor and Legislature never would have approved that teacher pay plan, nor extended the special 0.6-cent sales tax largely earmarked for education which had been scheduled to self-destruct in 2020.

Gelbart said his big concern, then and now, was that the walkout would damage public support for education. And he said the strike did not have universal support.

“I stand with the tens of thousands of teachers that voted against the walkout,” he said. “Nobody’s standing up for them.”

Branch questioned the whole movement, saying he spoke to teachers at the time.

“Many of them couldn’t articulate exactly what they wanted and many still can’t,” he said. Branch also said he sees the movement as an effort to affect this year’s election.


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