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New APS Super Won't Pick Evolution Fight

By Zsombor Peter
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    The superintendent-designate of the Albuquerque Public Schools hails from Kansas, which triggered a national backlash when it opened the door to teaching creationism in its public schools.
    Winston Brooks, who will move from Wichita to take the helm of APS by July 1, has some thoughts on the evolution/creation debate— but no plans to push for teaching creation theories here.
    And it's doubtful he could do so, even if he wanted, given state control of district curricula, its policies on the subject, and opposition from the APS board.
    Brooks said in a telephone interview that he believes in the separation of church and state and opposes any effort to remove evolution from the state standards on which local districts base their curricula.
    But he also said "our young people need to know all of the theories on how we came to be."
    That kind of talk scares staunch evolutionists like Marshall Berman, the retired nuclear physicist who helped reverse the New Mexico Board of Education's decision to remove all references to evolution and the Earth's most commonly accepted age from state statutes in the late 1990s.
    "There are no other scientific theories to evolution," he said.
    The state's science standards are now among the strongest in the nation, Berman said, and he doesn't want to see them weakened.
    Brooks is superintendent of the Wichita public school district in Kansas, where the state board of education decided in 2005 to make room for Darwin's detractors in its own state standards.
    It didn't take long for New Mexico Education Secretary Veronica Garcia to send every superintendent in her state a firm reminder.
    "New Mexico public schools are not permitted to endorse a particular religion, or teach religion," she wrote. "We believe this prohibition extends to 'creation science' or any of its variations that advances religious beliefs."
    Brooks said he had no plans to push for teaching intelligent design— the belief that life is too complex to be explained by nature alone— in Albuquerque classrooms.
    The subject, he said, was "the furthest thing from my mind right now."
    APS board member Robert Lucero said the subject of evolution never came up during Brooks' interview. He said he was more interested in Brooks' thoughts on improving student performance, closing the achievement gap and raising graduation rates.
    Evolution, he said, "wasn't at the top of my list."
    In retrospect, fellow board member Marty Esquivel said, the board might have been wise to bring it up. But considering the local climate, he added, pushing anything but evolution on Albuquerque's public schools would be "political suicide."
    It would probably take board approval to make such a change, Esquivel said, "and I don't see that happening."
    The Journal asked Brooks about the issue after receiving inquiries from readers.
    Esquivel said that, while campaigning for his seat on the APS board last year, he was surprised by how vocal parents were in opposing anything like the teaching of intelligent design.
    Besides, says Patricia Wagner, APS science coordinator, the state keeps its school districts on a short leash. Districts get to choose from state-approved textbooks and write their own curricula, she said, but have to stick close to state statutes.
    "What we tell teachers is that the standards are their guidelines," she said.
    But soon after the Kansas decision, the Rio Rancho School Board voted to let teachers entertain explanations other than natural selection for the diversity of life on Earth— drawing ire from critics and teachers.
    Rio Rancho struck the policy down in 2007, the same year the Kansas school board rescinded its own 2005 vote.
    As a Christian, Brooks said he believes God created humans.
    "On the other hand, I believe there's something to evolution," he said. "Whether or not my original ancestor was an ape, I don't have a clue."