The crowded field of candidates for state superintendent of education may be winnowed by the process of natural selection in the June 10 primaries, but in the meantime, GOP contenders for the office are sniping at each other over teaching of Darwin’s theory of the origin of species and the adoption of high school science standards.
Sheri Few, who runs a conservative parents group, took the first shots at Meka Childs, who was deputy superintendent under incumbent Republican Mick Zais, during Tuesday’s debate on SC-ETV.
She tagged Childs with adoption of new science standards that Few says were copied from the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of national standards developed by the same organization that created the Common Core State Standards.
She also accused Childs, at Zais’ behest, of circumventing a proviso that was inserted into the state budget that specified that no state funds were to be spent on adopting Next Generation Science Standards.
Childs says the new standards were based on the state’s 2005 standards, not the Next Generation standards. She also said that science standards, by definition, are going to cover the same material regardless of who writes them.
“If you’re talking about water, the molecular structure of water is going to be the same no matter what version of standards you’re using,” Childs said.
She said Few is falsely attacking her, to the detriment of the Republican Party’s cause.
“When it comes to Ms. Few, it’s like I’ve got a bull’s-eye on my back,” she told The News. “In my view it’s misplaced.”
Few, who has made opposition to Common Core the centerpiece of her campaign, went on the offensive Thursday, calling a news conference in Greenville, flanked by Phillip Bowers, a member of the state Education Oversight Committee and former state Board of Education member; a representative of a national group called Citizens for Objectivity in Public Education; and former Greenville County School Board member Julie Hershey.
“The relentless attack by liberals to indoctrinate our children and turn them away from our conservative and Christian values is the biggest problem facing our public schools today,” Bowers said.
He tried unsuccessfully to insert a science standard that calls on students to question whether climate change is caused by human activity but was able to get enough support on the EOC to offer a standard that calls for students to examine evidence that discredits Darwinism.
All of the new science standards have been adopted except for that new item, which the state Board of Education is scheduled to consider at its June 11 meeting.
The proposed standard calls on students to “construct scientific arguments that seem to support and scientific arguments that seem to discredit Darwinian natural selection.”
Few said she only wants students to learn critical thinking and to analyze all the evidence.
“Children are not receiving an objective education,” Few said during Tuesday’s debate.
“There was plenty of science and research behind the theory of Intelligent Design, and yet it is not allowed in the classroom. There is no reason why the scientific theory of Intelligent Design should not be taught in the classroom alongside the theory of evolution.
“And that way children would receive an objective education and also, for Christian children, could point to their God through the theory of Intelligent Design.”
The theory of Intelligent Design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.
The eight Republicans in Tuesday’s debate took a variety of positions on the issue, with many of them saying it makes a clear case for publicly funded tuition for private schools.
“I know how important it is to empower our parents with the ability to choose a school that is right for their child,” said Amy Cofield, an attorney who is seeking the seat.
Some walked the line.
“As far as the state science standards, I believe that we have to teach accurate information to our students, and that involves factual texts, factual information,” said Molly Spearman, executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators.
“As a Christian, I have taken the responsibility to teach my own children at home about our special beliefs and the creation of the world, and I think that is the responsibility of parents to do that in their own home on religious beliefs,” she said.
Don Jordan, a math professor at the University of South Carolina, said he sees no conflict between the biblical account of creation and science. He said he would use his influence if elected to encourage the kind of religious activity in schools that is legally permissible.
“I am going to ask every school to have a moment of silence, and I’m going to ask every parent in the state of South Carolina, you can’t pray in the school but you can pray on the way to school with your children,” he said. “And maybe you can’t pray inside the school but you can take the spirit into the school.”
Sally Atwater, a special education teacher and widow of legendary GOP political strategist Lee Atwater, said she supports the state science standards but also is a person of faith.
“I know this: As long as we have tests, many students are going to need to say that moment of silence in prayer before they take a test,” she said.
Charleston County businesswoman Elizabeth Moffly said, “I’m a firm believer in separation of church and state.” She noted that she had sent some of her children to religious school and supports expansion of a program that offers credit for public students to take religious courses.
Gary Burgess, a member of the Anderson County Board of Education, said he believes evolution should be taught “as a theory, not as a conclusive fact.”
“We need to make sure that children are given all the information, but it is the home’s responsibility and houses of faith’s responsibility to teach faith,” he said.
“I do not base my faith on science nor do I do base my science on faith. But my faith verifies my science.”
Democratic candidate Montrio M. Belton Sr. said he believes the state’s science standards are well founded and added, “I am very cautious about bringing my religious belief into the classroom.”
But he is adamantly opposed to the idea of giving vouchers or tax credits for parents to send their children to private schools, regardless of the reason.
Democrat Sheila Gallagher also said she believes the state’s science standards are fact-based and opposes vouchers.
Democratic state Rep. Jerry Govan, contacted on the House floor Thursday, said he wasn’t prepared to comment on the issue. Democratic candidate Tom Thompson couldn’t be reached.