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Creationism controversy again slips into Texas textbook debate

Update 7:35 p.m. ET: The Texas State Board of Education has preliminarily approved Education Commissioner Robert Scott's slate of supplemental biology materials, which do not include creationism or intelligent design. A final vote is scheduled for Friday.

While the public testimony was passionate at times, the board's debate was uneventful before members voted to reject proposed additional materials that discuss intelligent design. Republican board member David Bradley, who supports introducing intelligent design into the curriculum, joked that the audience might want its tickets refunded.

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Texas schools were back at the center of the argument over whether students should be taught creationism alongside evolution Thursday, even if they weren't supposed to be.

Curriculum standards adopted in 2009 say Texas' science textbooks must "explore all sides" of the theory of evolution, a specification that conservative religious members then on the board said was intended to require textbooks to discuss creationism and "intelligent design," the hypothesis that a supreme being engineered the creation and development of humanity. 

Texas schools are due to update their textbooks this year. Normally, the state board would review and approve all new textbooks. But the state says it can't afford to pay local school boards to buy any of them.

So the state Board of Education met Thursday to hear four hours of public testimony on whether to recommend a slate of electronic books and other online materials to "supplement" the old textbooks as a stopgap. A final vote is scheduled Friday. 

Activists were eager to use Thursday's hearing to continue their argument over evolution, targeting materials under discussion for high school biology classes. But the actual matter before the board was much narrower — Friday's vote is just on a recommendation for this year's supplements, not a binding vote on Texas' official textbooks.

None of the nine temporary solutions that state Education Commissioner Robert Scott signed off on includes creationism or intelligent design. (Conservatives on the board would like to consider a 10th supplement — rejected by Scott — that does examine intelligent design, The Dallas Morning News reported. But unlike two years ago, they no longer control a majority of the board.)

In any event, school districts don't have to follow the board's recommendation, under a new law that gives them the sole authority to spend their state education funds.

Still, almost 100 people asked to testify Thursday, hoping once again for the chance to argue over Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. 

• Poll: 4 in 10 Americans hold creationist views

Jonathan Saenz, legislative director of the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit activist group that helped shape the 2009 standards, argued that the supplemental materials "need to match up."

"We shouldn't stray from what happened in 2009," he said. 

But Clare Wuellner, a biologist and executive director of the Center for Inquiry in Austin, which advocates for "appreciation of science and reason," used the opportunity to stand behind "mainstream evolutionary science." 

"My children are fortunate to have an in-home Ph.D — me — to address" the teaching of anything other than evolution, but most Texas students aren't, Wuellner said. 

Board members indicated that the most pressing concern was to offer acceptable temporary materials in place in time so for the new school year so Texas pupils can take their achievement tests. The supplemental option could save the state more than $280 million over immediately buying millions of all-new textbooks, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, a prominent supporter of creationism in texts, tried to keep the testimony focused on the emergency supplements that were actually on the table, and board members on both sides expressed exasperation with people who wanted to debate the origins of life instead of the selection of temporary electronic materials for one school year. 

"We're talking about the supplemental materials," Cargill reminded a speaker who wanted Texas to teach creationism. And she asked another, who opposed the idea, to "please stick to the question at hand."

"I just don't know if that is being proposed by anyone," Terri Leo, the board's vice chairwoman for instruction, said after one speaker complained about mixing religion and science. "... I don't recognize anything he said in the supplemental materials."

Republican board members went so far as offer $500 to anyone who could find any mention of creationism or intelligent design in the materials.