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School Board's Creationist Trend Causes Stir in Vista : Education: Members to vote on forbidding 'dogmatic' teaching of science. Test of Christian right's strength seen.


VISTA, Calif. — A nationally watched debate that may ultimately be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court has captivated this normally quiet San Diego County community, as a fundamentalist Christian majority on the city's education board moves toward a policy mandating the teaching of creationism in public schools.

In January, the three-member majority of the Vista Unified School District board assured anxious parents that they would not champion what many feared would be the beginnings of a pro-creationism agenda.

Four months later, skeptical parents worry that the promise is about to be broken. And educators throughout the country are keeping an eye on Vista, which may yet offer a benchmark of the growing political power of the Christian right.

Tonight, scores will gather at a middle school in nearby Oceanside, where a capacity crowd will join in the school board's discussion of proposed Policy No. 6019: Teaching Science.

Many see a trend developing. The board recently voted to begin its meetings with a prayer and may soon consider the issue of reinstating prayer at high school graduation exercises in defiance of Supreme Court rulings on the state and federal level.

Board members plan to vote on the proposed creationism policy at their next meeting in June, when they will decide whether to forbid teachers to teach science "dogmatically," according to the proposal formulated by Board President Deidre Holliday, a member of the National Assn. of Christian Educators, a conservative political action group that seeks to influence school curricula.

Vista's policy, if adopted, would encourage teachers to show "weaknesses that substantially challenge theories in evolution." Holliday and her majority partners find such theories particularly objectionable.

Holliday acknowledged that she and her colleagues promised at a January meeting not to seek radical changes in the district's science curriculum. But she said the new attempt to add creationism as a classroom discussion topic does not constitute a shattered vow. Science lessons will be enhanced by the change "but not diminished in any way," she said.

The possibility that teachers may be asked to challenge the theory of evolution causes concern among officials for the State Department of Education, which establishes guidelines for public schools throughout the state.

"When used in a scientific context, we should make it abundantly clear that a scientific theory is not quite the same thing as my theory on why the New York Mets are having a bad year," spokesman William L. Rukeyser said.

"The point is, when I say I have a theory about baseball or trout fishing or whatever, I'm basically saying I have a notion, a vague idea. The point the state board makes is that, in scientific discourse, a theory is quite different," Rukeyser said. "It's developed and tested and may be discredited--but only through established scientific procedure."

Incumbent board member Sandee Carter, who with Linda Rhoades forms the two-person minority, said Wednesday that she had lost patience with the increasingly volatile issues surrounding the Vista board.

The goal of the three-member majority, she said angrily, "is to include religion in the classroom one way or the other," a tactic Carter vehemently opposes.

She noted that after the January meeting, board member John Tyndall sought to include in the science curriculum the book "Of Pandas and People," which critics say attempts to debunk the theory of evolution in favor of creationist concepts.

A teachers' committee voted unanimously to reject the book, which Holliday said "makes 'Of Pandas and People' a dead issue"--a claim Carter calls highly suspicious.

"I do know that a lot of people are getting really worked up over everything, and that's absurd," Holliday said. Still, she said, the three-member bloc deserves some credit for shaking things up in town.

"I see the discussions going on in Vista as being quite healthy, as awakening the community and making it more alive than ever," Holliday said. "We're trying to accommodate everyone, without shutting anyone out, and I defy our opponents to make the same claim."

Tom Conry, president of the Vista Teachers Union, said Holliday is correct in noting that debate has enlivened the community. And the fact that the city's school district is under a national microscope, he said, is not necessarily a bad thing.

But the biggest problem faced by teachers, Conry said, is that many are increasingly confused "and worry that, if some of these policies are adopted, they won't know what to teach."

Carter calls the proposed science policy "superfluous . . . not at all necessary. We don't have a policy telling teachers how to teach math, or social studies, or foreign languages."

But the greatest concern of all, Carter said, is one expressed even by conservative Christians--that the board's highly political posture will lead to lawsuits and the hiring of high-priced attorneys paid by taxpayers.

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