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Arkansas Teachers Avoided Evolution Under Huckabee

Science educators in certain U.S. states operate a bit like dissidents in the old Soviet bloc. They have to pick their battles as they walk the fine line between telling the truth and keeping their jobs. This was nowhere truer than in Arkansas under Gov. Mike Huckabee, a professed Young Earth Creationist who disdained Darwinism and the theory of evolution.

As governor, Huckabee funded a creationist museum and loudly endorsed the teaching of “creation science.” While his political allies in the state legislature twice introduced bills to ban the teaching of evolution, Huckabee presided over a school system that earned a “D” in science education and an “F” in teaching evolution. Only about a fifth of the science teachers in Arkansas taught evolution, though it was part of the school science education guidelines.

Yet Huckabee didn’t intervene publicly in the Department of Education, and even critics cannot uncover a paper trail of active resistance to teaching evolution. In fact, toward the end of Huckabee’s 10-year reign, the state science curriculum was updated to include use of the word “evolution” for the first time. “He’s slippery,” says Jason R. Wiles, an Arkansas-raised science educator who teaches biology at Syracuse University and manages McGill University’s Evolution Education Research Center.

But Huckabee’s obvious sympathies, and the intransigence of Fundamentalist school board officials, led Arkansas science educators to self-censor. Administrators cautioned science educators against using the “e-word” in their encounters with schools and students. At the Arkansas Museum of Discovery, the traditional state science museum, for example, museum officials removed an evolution exhibit amid a whispering campaign about the ire of conservative powers.

Did students really have to learn about evidence that the earth is 4.5 billion years ago? Nah. Why alienate the fundamentalists who controlled some of the science museum’s funding?

Yet some science educators in the state showed real courage.

“They would have thrown me to the wolves if the chance came along but they didn’t,” says Bill Fulton, who headed the committee that rewrote Arkansas’ science curriculum at the state Department of Education in 2005. “I was never directed to go in and throw this out or anything of that nature. I’ve always lived in fear that might happen, but it didn’t.”

As he put together the curriculum committee, Fulton was warned by his boss, who “lived in fear of certain ministers,” not to put too many science teachers on it. To get around that, Fulton made sure to include several teachers who were “very religious but believed in sticking to science in science class.” Fulton’s boss wanted to strike all references to evolution, instead calling it “change over time,” but Fulton finessed this by pointing out that anti-science people would see through the euphemistic language, he said.

“I did things that I shouldn’t have in so far as wanting to keep my job,” says Fulton, who retired last year after 39 years as an educator. “But I did them because I thought they were important. I’m 64, what the hell. What’s the worst thing they can do, fire me?”

Chris Comer, who held the same position in the Texas schools, was not so lucky. The Texas Department of Education forced out Comer in November after she forwarded an email to colleagues about an upcoming speech by a pro-evolution philosopher. Her boss, Lizette Reynolds, whom George W. Bush had hired while governor of Texas, called her on the carpet and removed her. “I’ll never get hired in Texas education again,” she said.

Science educators in Arkansas face a dilemma, Fulton says. They want Arkansas children to get as much science as possible in order to compete in education and jobs. But if they refuse to back down to evolution opponents, they fear losing funding for entire science programs. At the same time, “they don’t’ want to seem like country bumpkins who don’t realize that evolution is important,” he adds.

About a fifth of Arkansas teachers teach straight evolution, while another 30 percent teach “something along those lines,” according to a survey by state education officials. The other 50 percent don’t teach it, either because of their own weaknesses or community opposition. About 10 percent teach straight creationism.

Fulton is concerned about what the absence of evolutionary thinking means to the training of Arkansas kids as professionals. “I’m worried about doctors who don’t understand evolution, because the evolution of germs is certainly a real thing. But most folks accept that. The thing that gets them is that we descend from primates.”

The removal of Comer was deeply preoccupying to Fulton and other biology teachers, both because was a manifestly unjust, stupid act, and because Texas science textbooks are used by Arkansas and other states. “All Chris did was forward an email, which is exactly what my boss wouldn’t have wanted me to do and exactly what I would have done,” Fulton said. “It could have been me.”

Plenty of Arkansas politicians endorse creationism. In 2001, conservative state Rep. Jim Holt introduced a bill that banned the imparting of “fraudulent or false information”—specifically, the age of the earth or the origins of life—in Arkansas schools, museums or other state-funded programs. It died in committee, but a few years later, Mark Martin introduced another bill, which was squashed for procedural reasons. Huckabee isn’t on record about either bill. Nor did he comment on the ruckus over the anti-evolution stickers that the Beebe, Arkansas School Board removed from its science textbook in 2005 under threat of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“He doesn’t want to come off as the yokel who supported these things,” said Wiles. “He likes to be able to get the conservative and evangelical vote by supporting creationism as an issue of fairness, but doesn’t want to appear too zealous.”

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