Education board punts science standards back to panel
By Kerry Drake
— April 12, 2014
Controversial science standards legislators declared off limits to the state were sent back Friday by the Wyoming Board of Education to the same state committee of teachers that had unanimously approved them.
At a crowded meeting at the McMurry Training Center that lasted more than five hours, the board defeated three other motions before finally deciding not to just table the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which critics argued teach that climate change is caused by man, to the detriment of the state’s coal industry. But the board didn’t give the committee it asked to review the standards any direction, other than to say the panel of educators couldn’t come back with the NGSS or similar standards.
In an unprecedented move last month, the legislature added a footnote to the budget bill that stated the board of education could not spend any money on – or even discuss – the NGSS. The next fiscal year starts July 1, leaving some board members to maintain they have until then to decide the fate of the NGSS.
Two legislators in the audience, though, told the board it was violating the law by even talking about the standards at the public meeting, much less actually voting on them. They said lawmakers intended for the budget footnote to become effective immediately.
“I hope you would go by the intent of the two bodies of the legislature,” said Rep. Tom Reeder (R-Casper). “That [vote] was really the voice of the people of Wyoming.”
Rep. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) agreed. “I’d like the board to obey the law,” she said.
Several board members expressed frustration that the science standards have become a political decision, because that’s not what they signed up for when they accepted their appointments to serve on the board. They also lamented that the state’s science standards have not been updated since 2003.
Board Chairman Ron Micheli, a former state legislator and agriculture commissioner, said he and the other board members have been inundated by emails and calls since the issue became political.
“This isn’t some backward state that doesn’t believe in discussing climate change,” said Micheli, who added such a conversation that includes teachers, scientists, parents and the Department of Education should happen. “But there must be recognition of the fact that our public educational system is funded by fossil fuels.”
“I am not anti-planet,” he declared, answering criticism he received from NGSS supporters. “I am not an ignorant moron.”
Pete Gosar, chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party, took issue with Micheli tying the energy industry’s impact on the state’s economy to science, which he described as “very straightforward.”
“Too much politics have been involved in this,” he added.
The board gave each side a half-hour to offer public comments. Josh Thompson, a teacher at Transitions alternative school in Casper, said 98 percent of scientists whose work has been reviewed by their peers say climate change is real and caused by man. If nothing is done to reverse climate trends, he noted, the fossil fuel industry won’t matter.
“I’m sorry, but there’s no oil, coal or gas to sell on a dead planet,” he said.
Duane Keown, professor emeritus at the University of Wyoming, presented testimony in favor of adopting the NGSS by several scientists, including papers written by two Nobel Prize winners from Wyoming who were honored for their climate change work.
Marguerite Herman of Cheyenne, a long-time education advocate, noted the NGSS had received 18 months of rigorous study by the more than 30 educators on the state committee, who unanimously recommended them to the board.
Cindy McKee, a mother from Savery, claimed there is “substantial evidence” that climate change does not exist, but she didn’t cite any sources. “We don’t do science by consensus,” she said.
She added the NGSS is not good enough to enable a teacher in her district “to even put together [the curriculum for] a high school chemistry class.”
Another parent, Christy Hooley of Green River, who represents Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core, said if the board approves the NGSS, it will be infringing on the rights of religious parents and be guilty of insubordination, because the Legislature restricted using state funds for this specific set of science standards.
The common theme of those who testified against the NGSS was climate change and evolution are only theories, not facts.
Mary Kay Hill, Gov. Matt Mead’s policy adviser on education, said the governor must approve any standards the board presents him before they can be sent out for public comment. If the board chose to adopt the NGSS, Hill said she would advise the governor to reject it.
Gosar maintained it’s the board’s job to move forward with the best science standards available for Wyoming K-12 students, not the ones most politically expedient.
The board defeated proposals to reject and then to accept the NGSS, and also killed one that would have sent the committee’s recommendation back with the instruction to work on it some more. Board member Belenda Willson asked for the latter to be reconsidered, and it was approved, 7-2. Gosar and Joe Reichardt voted no.
But the board never answered a fundamental question asked several times by Gosar: If the committee accepts portions of the NGSS that does not cover climate change, “what is the percentage that would be palatable?”
Earlier, Jim Verley, PhD., science consultant to the Department of Education and the committee’s coordinator, said the NGSS is “as good a set of standards … that I’ve seen in my lifetime.” He stressed what the committee recommended to the board was not a national set of science standards, but one that had been adapted by his panel for use in Wyoming schools.
“I’m not convinced we will ever be able to come up with a set of [science] standards that will please everybody,” Gosar said. “And then we’ll be another 10 years down the road without them.”
“I’m very disappointed they didn’t choose to go forward with what they had,” Herman said after the meeting. “Now [the standards] are back in the mill and it’s very unclear what they can do there. The science standards are in limbo, with, unfortunately, less direction than the committee had to begin with.”
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake writes The Drake’s Take column for WyoFile, and is a contributor to WyoHistory.org.
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