SANTA FE – Hundreds jammed into a crowded auditorium Monday and waited up to seven hours to urge state officials to abandon proposed science education standards during a chaotic public meeting interrupted at one point by a fire alarm.
Scientists, teachers, university professors and faith leaders demanded that the New Mexico Public Education Department adopt a nationwide set of teaching standards called the Next Generation Science Standards without changes proposed by the agency last month. Not one speaker expressed support for the PED’s proposed changes.
“I came here thinking there would be some controversy,” Dr. David Ewing, an Albuquerque physician, told a hearing officer after more than six hours of testimony. “I didn’t hear a single argument against adopting the NGSS standards (without the PED changes.) Where are the people who favor this stuff?”
The teaching standards posted on the PED’s website last month were based on the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, published in 2013 by a consortium of states and the National Academy of Sciences. But the PED’s proposal contains changes to the NGSS. The standards as written have been adopted by 18 states and the District of Columbia.
Earlier Monday, faith leaders and Democratic Party officials joined a morning rally against the state’s science standards on a lawn outside Public Education Department offices in Santa Fe, The Associated Press reported.
Many speakers complained that the hearing was held in too small a venue. After the 100-seat auditorium filled to capacity at the Jerry Apodaca Education Building, an additional 70 people stood against the walls, and many more jammed the lobby. Still others were barred from entering the building by security personnel who said they were enforcing fire codes.
Just over an hour into the hearing, a fire alarm forced the entire audience to spill outside onto the lawn. A security officer said an unknown person had pulled a fire alarm. When the meeting resumed about 30 minutes later, security personnel barred many people from re-entering the lobby, and people who had signed up to speak were not able to respond when their names were called.
“People with mobility issues were forced to leave,” Peggy Brown told the PED employees who staffed the meeting. “No chairs were provided. I saw people leaving in disgust.”
Several speakers criticized PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski for not attending the hearing. Ruszkowski said last week that he had to attend a prescheduled event out of town on Monday. Representing the PED were a hearing officer, Kimberly Ulibarri, and the agency’s general counsel, Dawn Mastalir.
Others scolded the PED for scheduling the meeting on a school day.
“I want to point out how ridiculous it is that we are holding this meeting on a Monday when no teachers can come up and no students can come up,” said William Binette, who identified himself as a New Mexico student. PED officials listened to all the speakers Monday, but made no responses and offered no comments.
Dozens of scientists, teachers and professors said the proposed standards inject political and religious views into science. The changed standards omit the words “evolution” and the “4.6 billion-year age” of the Earth. They also changed “the rise” in global temperatures to “fluctuations” in global temperatures.
“Science is based on facts, evidence and hard work,” said Herbert Van Hecke, a physicist at Lost Alamos National Laboratory. “We are not doing kids any favors by allowing scientific flimflam into the classroom.”
Two Roman Catholic clergy members also spoke in favor of adopting the Next Generation Science Standards as written, and rejecting the PED’s proposed changes.
“The Catholic Church stands on the side of modern science,” said the Rev. Vincent Paul Chavez, pastor of St. Therese School and parish in Albuquerque. “The Catholic Church believes in Darwin’s theory of evolution. May the children and science curriculum of the public education system of New Mexico not be taken hostage by a backward religio-political-creationist agenda.”
Ed Fenimore, a Los Alamos National Laboratory astrophysicist, said omitting the age of Earth is intended to appeal to creationists who argue that the Earth is younger than 4.6 billion years.
“When you teach about the age of the universe and the age of the Earth, it affects many sciences,” Fenimore said. “You are trying to inject religion into our science.”
Carlos Estevan, science chairman of Santa Fe Indian School, alleged that the PED did not consult with Native American educators about the proposed revisions to the Next Generation Science Standards.
“If the Native American community doesn’t count as a constituency, I don’t know who does,” Estevan said.
PED has said it will evaluate the public comments and feedback, but did not give a timeline for when the proposed changes will be reviewed. A request for proposals will be issued for science textbook and materials publishers later this year and the final standards will be announced in July.