Eric Gay, Associated Press
Texas Board of Education Chair Barbara Cargill, left, and board member Kirk Overbey, right, talk during a Texas Board of Education meeting, Thursday, July 21, 2011, in Austin, Texas.
AUSTIN, Texas — The debate over teaching evolution in public schools flared up again at the Texas State Board of Education on Thursday, with supporters and opponents of the approach sparring at a meeting over supplemental science materials for the upcoming school year and beyond.
The Republican-dominated board drew national attention in 2009 when it adopted science standards encouraging schools to scrutinize "all sides" of scientific theory, a move some creationists hailed as a victory.
The board's new chairwoman, former biology teacher Barbara Cargill, disputes the theory of evolution. First elected in 2004, she was appointed chairwoman earlier this month by Gov. Rick Perry, who is considering a run for president. Cargill is considered one of the panel's more conservative members.
The new teaching materials are necessary because the state could not afford to buy new textbooks this year, leaving students to use some that are several years old. The board is considering materials recommended by state Education Commissioner Robert Scott. A vote is scheduled Friday.
One conservative group, Texans for a Better Science Education, put out a call to pack Thursday's public hearing with testimony urging board members to adopt materials that question Charles Darwin's theory on the origin of life. But much of the day's testimony was dominated by people who support teaching evolution.
"I don't want my children's public school teachers to teach faith and God in a science classroom," said the Rev. Kelly Allen of University Presbyterian Church in San Antonio. "True religion can handle truth in all its forms. Evolution is solid science."
The Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group that advocates freedom of religion and sides with mainstream science teachers, said it reviewed the recommended materials and considers them appropriate without steering students toward creationism or the theory of intelligent design.
"Texas parents want teachers and scholars — not politicians promoting personal agendas — making decisions about what our kids learn," said Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller.
Miller urged the board to adopt the recommended materials without making changes. The publishers have already submitted a list of errors that must be changed if the materials are approved. It was unclear if the board will try to force other changes before Friday's vote.
Materials submitted to the board but not recommended for approval include a high school biology e-book that promotes intelligent design despite federal court rulings against teaching the theory that life on Earth is so complex that it must have come from an intelligent higher power.
The public hearing was contentious from the start. Tom Davis of Austin urged the board to ignore any materials that deal with creationism or intelligent design.
"Intelligent design is creationism, wrapped in thin veneer of pseudoscience," Davis said at the start of the hearing. "Creation isn't really science at all. It's philosophy."
Sensing more repeated attacks on creationism and religion were to come, board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, offered anyone in the audience $500 if they could find any reference in the state's education science standards to "Jesus or God."
"It's just not there," Mercer said.
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David Shormann of Magnolia, who runs a Christian-based math and science education software company, said evolution has too many "untestable" components and can't provide a real look at ancient life without a "time machine or a crystal ball."
But Lorenzo Sadun, a math professor at the University of Texas, said those opposing evolution overstate gaps in the fossil record and other areas when trying to discredit the theory.
"The theory of evolution is based on almost as much evidence as the theory of gravity," Sadun said.
Supplemental materials that are approved will have the advantage of being on the state's recommended list, but school districts can still buy other materials they chose.