Congress returns to Washington next week, and while the fall agenda is pretty full, I'm curious to see if the conservative-dominated House and Senate will weigh in on the teaching of creationism in America's public schools. Don't be so quick to say it shouldn't or couldn't happen. The Kansas Board of Education's removal of evolution from the statewide science curriculum last month may have set the stage for a congressional inquiry.
Anyway, a probe of the Kansas board's action should be right up Congress's alley, because despite all the devolutionist rhetoric that gets tossed around on Capitol Hill, Republicans have shown an appetite for muscling in on distinctly local educational matters.
If you think otherwise, join me on a trip down memory lane to December 1996. That's when the Oakland, Calif., school board unanimously adopted a resolution to recognize black English, or "Ebonics," as a distinct "genetically based" language. Oakland educators billed Ebonics as their attempt to increase academic success by relying on "black" English to help black youngsters learn standard English. It was a controversial notion that drew worldwide attention and touched off a national debate.
It mattered not that Ebonics surfaced in an obscure school district about as far from Washington as you could get without falling into the Pacific. Republicans in Congress didn't hesitate to jump into the middle of the muddle. They intervened, despite their professed loathing of Washington's constant meddling in K-12 education and their griping about the federal government's making it harder for states and local school districts to experiment with approaches to improve academic success. "Flexibility," "local initiative" -- Republican watchwords on local education -- went out the window when Ebonics entered the room.
Republicans lost it.
"Absurd," thundered then-North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth. "Political correctness gone out of control," he said.
Arlen Specter went Faircloth one better. The senior Republican senator from Pennsylvania convened a subcommittee hearing to probe whether the federal government had a hand in funding Ebonics.
Not to be outdone by the Senate, a dozen conservative House Republicans, including Ron Paul of Texas, Van Hilleary of Tennessee and Bob Stump of Arizona, introduced legislation to bar any federal funds from being used to train teachers in Ebonics or to promote the use of Ebonics in any school district.
The outrage even filtered out to the Republican hinterland. A GOP delegate in Virginia's General Assembly drafted legislation prohibiting schools in the Old Dominion from teaching Ebonics.
The upshot of all the furor? The Oakland school board struck all the hot-button racial rhetoric from its policies and abandoned the idea of seeking federal bilingual education funds to help with the program. The board stayed true to the idea of placing special emphasis on programs to help black children overcome the dialect that they bring to school by teaching them how to speak and write standard English. The strong public reaction, especially from Washington, had it's effect, however.
Congress was unapologetic.
"Rather than learning the grammar of Ebonics," said Rep. Stump, who wrote the anti-Ebonics bill, "these children deserve to be learning math, science and English."
Which gets us back to Kansas.
If Ebonics, and the possible use of federal funds to teach it, got Stump and his colleagues all bent out of shape, they should get a load of what could happen in Kansas.
To the delight of religious conservatives -- but over the objections of Kansas's Republican governor, Bill Graves; the presidents and chancellors of Kansas's six public universities; and a host of educators and public scientists -- the state board of education adopted new standards for science curricula that reject evolution as an underlying principle of biology and other sciences. The effect of the changes, critics contend, is to discourage teaching evolution and to encourage the teaching of creationism as science in primary and secondary schools.
That should grab Congress's attention. The ostensible reason Stump and his supporters intervened with anti-Ebonics legislation was their concern that Title I federal monies, which schools use with wide discretion to help educate poor children, might be spent by the Oakland school board on Ebonics. If the misuse of federal funds remains their fear, Stump, Specter and the rest of their GOP colleagues should get a load of what's flowing out of the federal spigot to Kansas. Oakland schools in all their glory can't come close to Kansas when it comes to slurping up federal funds. In the fiscal year ending June 30, the Kansas Department of Education distributed to the state's 302 school districts $182,239,545 in federal funds, including $54,932,881 in Title I money for deprived children.
Stump wants "science" taught in public schools; at least he professed so in Oakland's case. Under the Kansas school board's new standards, science may not be taught, at least not the way science educators have taught the subject for decades. It's not a great leap to envision that some Kansas school districts, in a bow to the creationist movement, may allow the teaching of religion under the guise of "theistic science" in some public school science classes. That, of course, would run afoul of the Supreme Court, which has ruled against the teaching of creationist science. But it also would violate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which states: "Nothing contained in this Act shall be construed to authorize the making of any payment under this Act for religious worship or instruction."
And if there's a chance of that happening in Kansas public schools, is it not fair for Congress, concerned about what is "absurd" or "political correctness gone out of control" to inquire -- as it did in the case of Ebonics -- whether federal funds will be used to promote and sustain teaching of that kind?
Or does Congress have two standards: one for the religious right, and another for you know who?
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.