Arizona Schools Chief Diane Douglas Loses Fight to Weaken Evolution Standards

Diane Douglas suffered a blow at the State Board of Education meeting on October 22.
Diane Douglas suffered a blow at the State Board of Education meeting on October 22. Gage Skidmore/Flickr
In a rebuke to outgoing Superintendent Diane Douglas, the Arizona State Board of Education rejected her proposal to adopt education standards from a conservative Christian college.

Instead, in a 6-4 vote on Monday, the board approved its newly revised set of history and science standards. Douglas had attempted to scrap these standards at the last moment in favor of standards written by a charter school initiative at Hillsdale College, a private institution in Michigan.

The final version of the standards adopted by the state contain bulked-up references to evolution, which are the result of a recommendation last month from the Arizona Science Teachers Association.

The decision to push the Hillsdale standards on the board appeared to be Douglas' final attempt to alter Arizona's education landscape before leaving office. A vulnerable incumbent, Douglas lost to Republican Frank Riggs in a crowded August primary and will leave office in January. Voters will choose between Riggs and Democrat Kathy Hoffman in the November 6 general election.

At Monday's board meeting, she lamented the outcome of the review process.

“I had such high hopes for the standards," Douglas said. “Lacking explicit study of science and social sciences, these draft standards are vague and incomplete at best, indoctrination at worst.” Arizona's education standards, she said, require serious reform to improve "disturbingly low" proficiency levels in reading and mathematics.

When Douglas made a motion to adopt the Hillsdale standards, the room went silent – no other board members spoke up to second her motion.

Education standards set by the State Board of Education are used to guide teachers on the subjects their students should learn in each grade level.

In a strange move, the Department of Education under Douglas brought two sets of standards to the board on Monday: the Hillsdale College standards, and the science and history standards that had been under revision since January 2017 during a painstaking review process.

At last month's meeting, the 1,200-member Arizona Science Teachers Association asked the board to make four adjustments to the science standards that reinstated edited references to evolution and climate change.

click to enlarge Joseph Kezele, seen here in a creationist YouTube video, was selected by Douglas to serve on a Arizona Department of Education working group that reviewed science standards on evolution. - SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE
Joseph Kezele, seen here in a creationist YouTube video, was selected by Douglas to serve on a Arizona Department of Education working group that reviewed science standards on evolution.
Monday’s board meeting was the culmination of the state's review process to the K-12 science and history and social studies standards, the first such revision in over a decade for both subjects. But revisions to the science standards became a battlefield over the teaching of evolution. During the Department of Education’s review process, a series of references to evolution were edited out in favor of phrases like “biological diversity."

Douglas believes that intelligent design should be taught along with evolution in schools, though she acknowledges that the practice has been ruled unconstitutional. In August, she appointed a young-earth creationist, Joseph Kezele, to a committee that reviewed the draft changes to the evolution science standards.

Kezele successfully pushed through one of the changes in the review process – a reference to evolution as "an" explanation for the unity and diversity of life, as opposed to "the" explanation. But it was reversed as a result of the ASTA recommendations that the board ultimately adopted.

Douglas had proposed adopting the standards developed by Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, which provides academic support and curriculum for new charter schools. Hillsdale is tied financially to the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who grew up in Michigan; her brother, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, is a graduate.

After the board ignored her proposal, Douglas denied that her push to adopt standards from a Christian college is related to her faith and outlook on evolution. “The Hillsdale-Barney standards are not Christian standards," Douglas said in an interview.

Hillsdale is a Christian university, Douglas said, but the standards "were created for public schools and are well within the laws of them.”

Yet Douglas again returned to the subject of evolution as one potential area where students could be subject to "indoctrination" under the newly adopted standards. Her intent, she said, was to have students examine "both sides" of issues, particularly evolution.

"There are many areas of evolution," she told reporters. "There’s chemical evolution, microevolution, macroevolution – they are all in the standards under the same blanket definition. We don’t explain to our children what are the differences between the different types; we don’t teach them that. And we don’t teach them, too, what are the strengths and weaknesses?"

Douglas conceded that science has proved that species adapt, but she cast doubt on whether humans evolved from other species.

"Show me where any scientist has proven or replicated that life came from non-living matter or that, if you would, in the example we see in the museums, that man evolved from an ape, there’s no proof to that," Douglas said. "And that’s all I’m saying to our teachers."

During the meeting on Monday, educators, members of Arizona's Sikh community, and advocates of interfaith dialogue urged the board to reject the Hillsdale standards in favor of the revised standards. Speakers argued that the Hillsdale standards suffer from a one-dimensional emphasis on Christianity and other Abrahamic religions.

Tory Roberg, the director of government affairs of the Secular Coalition for Arizona, asked the board to adopt the revised science standards containing the recommendations of the ASTA.

“We’ve been very concerned about efforts to push personal religious beliefs on more than a million Arizona children in public schools,” Roberg told the board. "Our students deserve to be taught science in science class."

The Hillsdale standards, entitled “Scope and Sequence,” are very different from the standards developed by the Department of Education working groups for the science/social studies standards.

The Hillsdale standards list in bullet-point style the specific readings or topics that teachers should cover, with an emphasis on American history, civics, and government. Under the sixth-grade section, in a discussion of "Lasting Ideas from Ancient Civilizations: Judaism and Christianity," the Hillsdale standards list "central ideas and moral teachings" of Christianity, as well as several important stories from the life of Jesus.

According to the superintendent’s office, Douglas became interested in the Hillsdale Standards as a result of conversations with Nichole Cohen, the vice president of the Lake Havasu Unified School District.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty