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City, state to scrutinize charter curriculum that questions evolution

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A Texas-based education organization with approval to open two charter schools in Indianapolis this year uses curriculum that teaches creationism and Christian-based character virtues, according to an article by the online magazine Slate.com.

The article has prompted an expedited review of the curriculum of Responsive Education Solutions Inc. by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s charter schools office and by the Indiana Charter School Board—the two entities that approved ResponsiveEd to open schools here.

But officials at ResponsiveEd say the Slate article takes elements of its curriculum out of context. They say their schools do not teach creationism, but rather teach evolution while acknowledging—“but not exploring”—the ways in which evolution has been questioned or criticized.

Slate, in a review of workbooks used in ResponsiveEd’s charter schools, found claims that “the fossil record is ‘sketchy.’ That evolution is ‘dogma’ and an ‘unproved theory’ with no experimental basis.”

“ResponsiveEd has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to the far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state,” wrote Zach Kopplin in the Slate article.

In response, ResponsiveEd CEO Chuck Cook sent a letter to Ballard’s staff and the Indiana Charter School Board, explaining how the Slate accusations are off-base. The letter, which can be read here, includes every reference in ResponsiveEd’s curriculum to creationism.

“We don’t teach creationism. We completely stay away from saying it’s a scientific theory,” Cook said in a phone interview with IBJ from his office in Lewisville, Texas. ResponsiveEd, a not-for-profit organization, operates 65 charter schools, serving nearly 17,000 students, in Texas and Arkansas.

“I think what bothers this activist at Slate—and he refers to himself at the end of the article as an activist—is that we’re bringing up any issues that have criticized the theories of evolution, in however many years,” Cook added. “We believe that’s important, to have our kids think critically about things. I wouldn’t say that’s anti-evolution.”

In November, Ballard’s office approved the opening of Founders Classical Academy, a K-12 ReponsiveEd school, for later this summer. Also, the Indiana Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by Gov. Mike Pence and the Indiana General Assembly, approved the opening later this year of Premier High School, a dropout recovery school operated by ResponsiveEd.

Those agencies said they found nothing objectionable in ResponsiveEd’s curriculum before granting charters to the organization. But they’re taking a closer look now.

“Any time questions are raised, we’re going to look into it,” said Jason Kloth, Ballard’s deputy mayor for education.

ResponsiveEd officials alerted both Ballard’s staff and the Indiana Charter School Board to the Slate article when it was published on Jan. 16, and have since sent their entire science and history curricular materials to both agencies for their review.

Neither the mayor’s office nor the state charter board reviews curriculum materials in detail before approving a charter. Instead, they analyze the “scope and sequence” of a school’s curriculum, to make sure it aligns with Indiana educational standards.

Then, before a school opens, the mayor’s office and state charter board staffs employ academic analysts to review curriculum materials. But even then, those reviews do not scrutinize every page.

In this case, however, the mayor’s office likely will look at every page of ResponsiveEd’s curriculum.

“We don’t want to be in the business of mandating certain types of curriculum,” said Brandon Brown, who is Ballard’s director of charter schools. But, he added, “Given the public nature of this and these questions, … we will spend the next week or two weeks reading through all their curriculum.”

The Slate article examined what ResponsiveEd calls “Knowledge Units,” which it uses in its Premier dropout recovery schools. It does not use those materials in its Founders Classical Academies, which is the school Ballard’s office approved. Even so, Brown and Kloth said, they are reviewing the Knowledge Units as well as the curriculum of the Founders Classical Academy.

Slate noted a few inaccuracies in ResponsiveEd’s history curriculum and took issue with some of its wording For instance, the ResponsiveEd materials say that feminism has forced women to rely on the government as a “surrogate husband,” that the New Deal programs of the 1930s fostered “dependency on the Federal government,” and a reference to “the homosexual lifestyle.” They also refer to pre-Christian populations as “pagan” and refer to recent state approvals of gay marriage as a repeal of “laws against the homosexual lifestyle.”

Slate also accuses ResponsiveEd of using Christian-based character materials created by Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles and Texas-based Accelerated Christian Education.

Cook said ResponsiveEd has, indeed, adapted those materials into its curriculum, but has done so in a way that complies with all laws and requirements under its charters.

“It’s no different than the millions of people that teach in our public schools, all over the country, and you have people of various faith backgrounds. They’re teaching and they’re doing a good job. Nobody’s crying foul,” Cook said. “Their faith coming into the classroom doesn’t mean they’re going to violate the law, that they’re going to violate the constitution, just because they go to church on Sunday or they go to a mosque."

Emily Richardson, interim executive director of the state charter school board, also said her staff would take a careful look at ResponsiveEd’s curriculum.

“ResponsiveEd reached out to the ICSB early Thursday morning [Jan. 16] regarding the article and has been transparent about their curricular materials mentioned in the piece, providing the ICSB prompt access to these materials for our careful review,” Richardson wrote in an e-mail. “We are confident in our rigorous application and preopening process, during which ResponsiveEd has provided evidence of instruction based on Indiana standards and operation in compliance with Indiana and federal law.”

Indiana law does not say what public schools can or can’t teach in their science classrooms, although the curriculum standards adopted by state agencies have called for the teaching of evolution. In 2012, state lawmakers sought to pass a law allowing the teaching of creationism, but the bill was not successful.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1987 case Edwards V. Aguillard that a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of both evolution and creationism was unconstitutional.

Also, in 2005, two federal courts struck down state laws that allowed public schools to teach theories questioning Darwinian evolution, such as intelligent design, in science classrooms.

“It is already permissible to discuss religion in a history, philosophy, or a comparative religion course in a public school. In these courses, a diverse array of religious views can be discussed,” noted Suzanne Eckes, a lawyer who teaches at the IU School of Education in Bloomington. “It becomes questionable, however, when creationism is taught in a science course.

"An attempt to supplement the teaching of evolution in a public school classroom with creationism would likely be seen [by courts] as favoring one religion over another and in violation of the First Amendment.”

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  • Getting what they asked for
    With great support from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and out-of-state political entities, the state Republicans have created an Indiana ready-made for these types of scams. The unprecedented vilification of public teachers combined with voucher schemes that drain from public schools more revenue have provided profits for these very types of privately run madrassas. The business community needs to accept their enabling role in what has happened and what continues to happen to Indiana's constitutional obligation to provide for public education.
  • Comment
    The reason we are having the debate has nothing to do with fact vs theory and everything to do with intentional ignorance of the fact itself. The evidence for evolution is OVERWHELMING. Literally every bit of evidence we have supports it, or THEN it would not exist, because science would not allow it to persist. A debate needn't stem from two equal possibilities, as indeed this is only a debate of perception. If you would like to further delve into the real evidence, I suggest studying through a university-funded lecture on the topic- you can likely find a free class on ITunes U (ap for iPhone or iPad). They will likely discuss homologies (interspecial similarities) vestigial organs/body structures (the appendix in humans and, in animals, did you know whales have legs? Check it out. Not lying) and striated geologic record housing particular fossils (if we had ever, EVER found ONE out of order the entire theory would fall apart. Guess what? We haven't). Enjoy your learning. I hope you are willing, and that you enter with an open mind knowing it is not your religion that is at stake, only your perception of how it must be observed.
  • Hows IPS doing?
    Hows IPS graduation rate compared to these folks? Wanna guess?
  • Leave it to backward Indiana
    I'm amazed how backward Indiana is. We have a governor who believe the earth is only 4,000 years old, and that evolution is an unproven theory, and that the separation of church and state is just an "idea".... It's like living in Iran, a religious state....How did these clowns get elected?
  • Faith
    Most of you are using facts, logic, and reason to make your points. None of that will persuade anyone whose mind is addled by religious faith. Alas, I don't know what will.
  • Wanna Bet Me?
    How much do you want to be that Ballard's team will "review" this, and decide there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with this group, and approve both schools for public funding? Any takers??? Heck, I'll even give you 2 to 1 odds.
  • double ha.
    (You what's hilarious? There would BE no Eli Lilly & Co at all if it weren't for life sciences built rather completely on the foundation of evolutionary theory. And yet, there the building stands. Elsewhere on this site, people post rants in support of Bosma's ridiculous Gay Laws using technologies built by companies run and marketed by gay people. I believe we should all put monies and mouths together and, if you don't like evolutionary theory, stop using the products of that scientific labor; if you don't believe gay people deserve equal treatment under the law, stop posting from a Mac, Android or Windows device. Applying that consistency would make this a happier place indeed.)
  • The quote fits better here than it did in the Bosma story
    “Imagine the people who believe such things and who are not ashamed to ignore, totally, all the patient findings of thinking minds through all the centuries since the Bible was written. And it is these ignorant people, the most uneducated, the most unimaginative, the most unthinking among us, who would make themselves the guides and leaders of us all; who would force their feeble and childish beliefs on us; who would invade our schools and libraries and homes. I personally resent it bitterly.” ? Isaac Asimov Teach kids what they need to know to succeed academically, to achieve in schools of higher learning if they so choose...religious education should not be subsidized by the public, period, go to church for that. The Framers were clear on this point...the Salem Witch Trials were fairly recent history...you are free to believe Creationism if you like...faith is what you have to guide you there...no science or unequivocal proof...it doesn't belong in science class in public school. As for David worrying about the "moral cesspool" we are becoming, read your Bible David (even if it was written by Bronze Age peasants who believed in holistic healing techniques that were not always entirely effective, as John describes them)...so we have always been...the Crusades...the Spanish Inquisition...we are no more or less corrupt today than we ever have been, and your fear mongering about "moral cesspools" belies the motive behind it...to force a personal, specific value system and set of beliefs upon everyone else...fine for you to believe what you want, but the very line you want to cross is what protects your right to observe your faith as you see fit, and believe what you want...let's leave the line well defined, the way the framers intended. Church and State...separate...
  • A Fact and a Theory
    Nothing is "an absolute fact," not even your own existence. However, some things have been sufficiently well-established that it would be perverse to continue to deny them (which presumably includes own existence). According to the National Academy of Science, evolution -- the idea that all life on Earth has evolved from a common ancestor -- is one of the most well-established of scientific FACTS. The FACT of evolution is NOT the same as what people commonly refer to as the "Theory of Evolution" or "Darwinism," which is more accurately referred to at this time as the neo-Darwinian Synthesis. That "theory" of evolution attempts to explain the observed "fact" of evolution, and is considered by most scientists to be sufficiently well-established (just like the germ theory of disease) that it is unlikely to ever be discredited -- and certainly not by the ancient "theory" of divine creation.
  • Get this out of Indiana
    From the article this appears to be a religious based curriculum, one which my and your tax dollars should not be paying for. If a parent wants their child to attend a religious based school then they can pay for it themselves. We should be demanding education programs that give students the skills to determine for themselves what they believe about religion, science and a whole host of other issues. Leave the dogma and inaccuracies to Texas.
  • Stop the Madness
    One of the principle motivations for the separation of church and state as embodied in the First Amendment was the vocal opposition by James Madison and others to the idea of forcing taxpayers to subsidize religious education. It is sad and ironic that now, over 200 years later, we still have groups of talibangelicals claiming it is their constitutional right to proselytize their religious ideology in schools at taxpayer expense. And, of course, the "teach the controversy" mantra is simply their code for wanting to teach their particular Judeo-Christian creation myth -- as opposed to any of the scores of other equally absurd creations myths. It makes no more sense in the 21st Century to teach these creation myths as an alternative to evolution than it does to teach "demon possession" in medical schools as an alternative theory for the cause of sickness. Here’s the bottom line: do you really think that the conflicting creation stories contained in a particular holy book, written by a series of unknown Bronze Age peasants who thought that leprosy could be cured with the blood of a dead bird, should be put on the same intellectual footing as the FACT (as the National Academy of Science calls it) of evolution, which has been repeatedly verified through the life’s work of tens of thousands of the smartest human beings who have ever lived over the last 150 years? If your answer is yes, then please be consistent and go to an exorcist instead of a doctor the next time you get really sick.
  • not in science
    of course there is nothing wrong, as long as it is in a comparative religion class. Teach science in science class, and religion in religion class. That is the law, and what the constitution says we must do. Teacher's can't teach Hindu creationism in science class either, i bet many people commenting here are glad about that!
  • More to it
    This ignores the many other problems with the curriculum, like saying samurai were leading Japan during WWII, or the Spanish monarchy of the 1500s was actually a Republic. OR that Europeans had republics and freedom and democracy throughout back then as well. The curriculum is a joke, and it's anti-science problems are only the tip of the iceberg. Read the entire Slate article, it is truly horrifying that children are taught this. Keep religion in religion class, science in science class, and try teaching history in history class.
  • Article could use a little grammar schooling
    Letter to the editor: You may want to check the proper use of there, their and they're when writing article titles, especially one about schooling.
  • Scrutiny is Valid
    If evolution was absolute fact and not theory we would not be having this debate. The fact of the matter is that evolution cannot explain every aspect of the origin life on Earth. Even Richard Dawkins concedes that first life most probably did not spontaneously appear on our planet without some sort of external agent. The theory of evolution should be tested and questioned – along with other science-based interpretations of the observable facts – so that our students can learn to think and recognize where science ends and inference begins.
    • HA!
      And you wonder why, increasingly our country's best science and engineering people have immigration forms? Perhaps because they aren't hobbled for 12 grades by ridiculous Texas-approved schoolbooks. Here's to the iPad. Here's to the Surface in Schools. Here's to the end of print textbooks, and the end of the efficient printing of lowest-common-denominator, Texas-flavored junk science distributed nationwide – and the end of my taxes going to pay for them. Let Texans put their kids at a science, life-science and engineering disadvantage all they desire. Here's to getting better.
    • I weep too
      It is a travesty that any discussion about Christianity in schools is met with an uproar, but anti-family, anti-God, anti-traditional values are blasted in classrooms on a daily basis and it is applauded. We are in a race to the bottom alright, the bottom of the moral cesspool with places like California.
      • Slate is insensitive
        There's nothing wrong with teaching different views of human origin. Cultural sensitivity and multiculturalism also includes Christians. Children will be better educated after hearing all sides- not just the side Slate magazine and other Christian- haters want them to hear.
        • Amendment
          Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
        • I weep for my state
          Stories like this make me so sad for Indiana. We are already towards the bottom in regards to educational attainment and instead of teaching our children science, we are teaching them lies. We are truly in a race to the bottom with Alabama, Mississippi & West Virginia

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          1. Now if he'd just stay there...

          2. Daniel - what about the many US citizens who do NOT follow what the Bible teaches? The Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others who are all American citizens entitled to all rights as Americans?? This issue has NOTHING to do with "What the Bible says..." Keep all Churches separate from State! Pence's ongoing idiocy continues to make Indiana look like a backwards, homophobic state in the eyes of our nation. Can't we move on to bigger issues - like educating our kids?

          3. 1. IBJ should link to the referenced report. We are in the age of electronic media...not sharing information is lazy. Here is a link http://www.in.gov/gov/files/Blue_Ribbon_Panel_Report_July_9_2014.pdf 2. The article should provide more clarity about the make-up of this panel. The commenters are making this item out to be partisan, it does not appear the panel is partisan. Here is a list of the panel which appears to be balanced with different SME to add different perspectives http://www.in.gov/activecalendar/EventList.aspx?view=EventDetails&eventidn=138116?formation_id=189603 3. It suggests a by-pass, I do not see where this report suggests another "loop". 4. Henry, based on your kneejerk reaction, we would be better off if you moved to another state unless your post was meant as sarcasm in which case I say Well Done. 5. The article and report actually indicates need to improve rail and port infrastructure in direct contradiction to Shayla commentary. Specifically, recommendation is to consider passenger rail projects... 6. People have a voice with their elected officials. These are suggestions and do not represent "crony capitalism", etc. The report needs to be analyzed and the legislature can decide on priorities and spending. Don't like it, then vote in a new legislature but quit artificially creating issues where there are none! People need to sift through the politics and provide constructive criticism to the process rather than making uninformed comments in a public forum based on misinformation. IBJ should work harder to correct the record in these forums when blatant errors or misrepresentations are made.

          4. Joe ... Marriage is defined in the Bible ... it is mentioned in the Bible often. Marriage is not mentioned once in the US or Indiana Constitution ...

          5. Daniel - Educate me please: what does the Bible have to do with laws? If the government wasn't in the business of marriage to begin with, then it wouldn't have to "define" marriage at all. Marriage could be left as a personal, religious, or otherwise unregulated action, with no ties to taxes, legal status, etc. Then people could marry whomever they want, and all this silliness would go away. Remember to vote Libertarian in November.

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