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Wyoming blocks new science standards

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Wyoming lawmakers blocked a new set of national science standards, but a week after Gov. Matt Mead signed off on the change, education advocates are still digesting what the action means for the state.

Some say the provision, which came through a last-minute budget footnote, blocks the state from considering any part of the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of K-12 standards developed by national science education groups and representatives from 26 states. Others, including the provision's author, say it prevents the wholesale adoption of the standards as they are written.

Legal teams from the state board of education, the Wyoming Department of Education and the Legislative Service Office are ferreting out the footnote's intent, state board Chairman Ron Micheli said.

"Right now, we're just up in the air," Micheli said Thursday. "We don't have consensus on the board or among our attorneys [on the footnote's meaning]."

Climate controversy

One of lawmakers' big concerns with the Next Generation Science Standards is an expectation that students will understand humans have significantly altered the Earth's biosphere. In other words, the standards say global warming is real.

That's a problem for some Wyoming lawmakers.

"[The standards] handle global warming as settled science," said Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle who was one of the footnote's authors. "There's all kind of social implications involved in that that I don't think would be good for Wyoming."

Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming's economy, as the state is the nation's largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications.

Micheli, the state board of education chairman, agreed. 

"I don't accept, personally, that [climate change] is a fact," Micheli said. "[The standards are] very prejudiced in my opinion against fossil-fuel development."

For Pete Gosar, that's not a reason to avoid teaching good science.

"Over the last few years in Wyoming, we’ve injected politics into education time and again and it has been less than successful," said Gosar, a member of the state board of education and chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party. "And so here we go again."

What is taught in math or science should not be swayed by public opinion, Gosar said. Removing the Next Generation Science Standards from the state board's options does not help the state board do its job, he said.

Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the Wyoming League of Women Voters who followed the education debate in the legislative session, said the Legislature overstepped its bounds by influencing which standards its state board could consider. 

"They've reached out from their lawmaking branch of government and ... arbitrarily said, 'This thing over here is out of bounds,'" Herman said. 

Educational standards should be insulated from politics and science especially should not bend to the will of politicians, she said.

Teeters disagreed that the Legislature overstepped its bounds.

"We set their budget," Teeters said. "We control what they do."

The footnote was effective immediately upon Mead's signature last week, Teeters said. He expects the state board will start over in its science standards revision process, which began more than a year ago. He said the footnote only prohibits the state from adopting the Next Generation Science Standards as they are now. It doesn't prohibit the state board from adopting certain parts of the standards or using them as a framework to write their own.

He said the state board's standards adoption process should include more citizen input and should emphasize less content-specific standards.

Members of the nonprofit group Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core celebrated the footnote prohibiting the science standards. 

In a release Monday, the group said the state needs to include more parents and community members who are not teachers in the standards-writing process.

Before the budget footnote passed, a committee of about 30 science specialists unanimously recommended the state board of education adopt the Next Generation Science Standards. 

The board did not adopt the standards.

Instead, board members asked the committee to revise the standards to present climate change as a theory, instead of a fact, and to present the benefits mineral extraction has brought Wyoming, Micheli said.

The board would have considered the committee's suggestions and brought them back to the board to start a public comment period as early as the end of March, he said.

What are the standards?

Nine states and the District of Columbia have so far adopted the standards, which were finalized in 2013.

"It's not ideological," said Lisa Hoyos, director of the nonprofit Climate Parents, a group advocating for the standards nationally. "It's peer-vetted science. ... As a parent, it’s very important for me to ensure that my kids are taught vetted, peer-tested scientific content."

For all the controversy generated in Wyoming by the standards' teachings on global warming, climate science is only one of many subject areas outlined in the standards.

Every life science, physical science and earth and space science concept includes suggestions for how teachers can tie engineering concepts into a lesson.

Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.


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