Arizona Superintendent Diane Douglas rebuked her critics and attacked the media at a meeting of the State Board of Education on Monday while addressing her department's controversial revisions to the K-12 science standards dealing with evolution and climate change.
Douglas has been taking fire ever since the spring because of revisions that de-emphasized evolution during the standards review process – the first such revisions to the science standards over a decade.
After Phoenix New Times reported that Douglas appointed young-earth creationist Joseph Kezele to serve on a committee reviewing changes to the evolution standards, advocates of science-based education reacted with disbelief.
At the September 24 meeting, Douglas said Kezele was treated "disgracefully" by the news.
She apologized to him for "the disrespect heaped upon him by the media and others, all of which was intended to create drama, fake news, and clickbait."
The president of the Arizona Origin Science Association, Kezele teaches biology at Arizona Christian University. He believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that scientific evidence backs up the Genesis narrative of the Bible.
Kezele participated in only one committee meeting on August 30, Douglas emphasized. He did not bring his personal beliefs to bear on the discussion, she said.
Creationism and intelligent design were never inserted into the standards, Douglas argued. The real catalyst for the controversy, according to Douglas, was her Christian beliefs.
"What I find so offensive about this whole situation is that it is not something I have actually done that has caused an uproar, but rather what I believe has made me and Dr. Kezele a target of hatefully belittling and hate-filled diatribes," Douglas said.
She then segued to attacking her perceived critics in the news media, calling out by name 12 News political reporter Brahm Resnik and Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts.
"To the Brahm Resniks and Laurie Roberts of this state, my 'crime' is holding a Christian worldview and speaking of it publicly — clearly, an unforgivable offense in the eyes of the secular left," Douglas said. "The protest is indicative of the type of political agendas that are so wrong with our education system."
Personally, Douglas believes that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in science classrooms, but acknowledged that the Supreme Court deemed the practice unconstitutional.
She lost her re-election bid in the primary to Republican Frank Riggs and, as a result, will leave office in January.
The revised standards were shared with the board at the Monday meeting. Next, the standards will go before the board again for a formal vote on October 22. Douglas said that the Department of Education would try to incorporate suggestions from the Arizona Science Teachers Association before the formal adoption of the standards next month.
At a rally before the meeting, the Secular Coalition for Arizona and several supporters urged the board to reject the standards because of changes that de-emphasized evolution and climate change.
Tory Roberg, the group's executive director, told the board that language dealing with evolution and climate were watered-down and "tampered with." She expressed bewilderment at why Kezele was invited to participate in the review process.
“Enough is enough," Roberg said. "Arizona’s children deserve a science education based on facts, not religious dogma. Let me be clear: There is no place for religious dogma in science class."
The state standards are meant to identify core ideas that students should learn as they progress through their lessons, and to serve as a guide for local school districts as they develop their curriculum.
The controversy over evolution, climate change, and Kezele prompted 21 Democratic state lawmakers to send a letter to the Board calling on them to reject the standards.
Sara Torres, the executive director of the Arizona Science Teachers Association, asked the board to send the standards back to the education department.
She said that students and teachers deserve and need "strong, scientifically accurate standards."
The association asked the board to adopt four revisions to the standards in a September 20 letter. Among their proposed revisions was a request to reinstate an earlier sentence in the evolution standards which stated that students should "gather and communicate evidence on how the process of natural selection provides an explanation of how new species can evolve."
And the group asked the board to restore a core idea that states definitively, "The unity and diversity of organisms, living and extinct, is the result of evolution."
This key line was the subject of debate during the August 30 committee that included Kezele; ultimately, he convinced other committee members to refer to evolution as "an" explanation for life on Earth as opposed to "the" explanation.
Additionally, the association asked the board to re-insert several advanced standards on climate change that were erased. These standards asked earth science students to use global models to assess climate change.
"The current deletion of all these standards diminishes the content and critical understanding that our students should learn in a yearlong earth science course," Torres told the board.
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Toward the end of the meeting, Douglas appeared open to the Science Teachers Association revisions after a couple of members of the board voiced their support.
“We’ll add them in,” Douglas said.
Douglas emphasized that plenty of science teachers had been involved in the review process, but that it still wouldn't please everyone.
“I’m sure they’ll be unhappy with whatever comes forward next time," Douglas said of her critics.