Texas Public Charter Schools Are Teaching Creationism

The state of the universe.
Jan. 16 2014 4:30 AM

Texas Public Schools Are Teaching Creationism

An investigation into charter schools’ dishonest and unconstitutional science, history, and “values” lessons.

140115_SCI_Creationism
A Texas charter school group has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

When public-school students enrolled in Texas’ largest charter program open their biology workbooks, they will read that the fossil record is “sketchy.” That evolution is “dogma” and an “unproved theory” with no experimental basis. They will be told that leading scientists dispute the mechanisms of evolution and the age of the Earth. These are all lies.

The more than 17,000 students in the Responsive Education Solutions charter system will learn in their history classes that some residents of the Philippines were “pagans in various levels of civilization.” They’ll read in a history textbook that feminism forced women to turn to the government as a “surrogate husband.”

Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.

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Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda—and it is succeeding. Operating more than 65 campuses in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, Responsive Ed receives more than $82 million in taxpayer money annually, and it is expanding, with 20 more Texas campuses opening in 2014.

Charter schools may be run independently, but they are still public schools, and through an open records request, I was able to obtain a set of Responsive Ed’s biology “Knowledge Units,” workbooks that Responsive Ed students must complete to pass biology. These workbooks both overtly and underhandedly discredit evidence-based science and allow creationism into public-school classrooms.

A favorite creationist claim is that there is “uncertainty” in the fossil record, and Responsive Ed does not disappoint. The workbook cites the “lack of a single source for all the rock layers as an argument against evolution.”

I asked Ken Miller, a co-author of the Miller-Levine Biology textbook published by Pearson and one of the most widely used science textbooks on the market today, to respond to claims about the fossil record and other inaccuracies in the Responsive Ed curriculum. (It’s worth noting that creationists on the Texas State Board of Education recently tried, and failed, to block the approval of Miller’s textbook because it teaches evolution.)

Charles Darwin, circa 1870, glass negative.
Charles Darwin, circa 1870.

Courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress

“Of course there is no ‘single source’ for all rock layers,” Miller told me over email. “However, the pioneers of the geological sciences observed that the sequence of distinctive rock layers in one place (southern England, for example) could be correlated with identical layers in other places, and eventually merged into a single system of stratigraphy. All of this was established well before Darwin's work on evolution.”

The workbook also claims, “Some scientists even question the validity of the conclusions concerning the age of the Earth.” As Miller pointed out, “The statement that ‘some scientists question,’ is a typical way that students can be misled into thinking that there is serious scientific debate about the age of the Earth or the nature of the geological record. The evidence that the Earth was formed between 4 and 5 billion years ago is overwhelming.”

Another Responsive Ed section claims that evolution cannot be tested, something biologists have been doing for decades. It misinforms students by claiming, “How can scientists do experiments on something that takes millions of years to accomplish? It’s impossible.”

The curriculum tells students that a “lack of transitional fossils” is a “problem for evolutionists who hold a view of uninterrupted evolution over long periods of time.”

“The assertion that there are no ‘transitional fossils’ is false,” Miller responded. “We have excellent examples of transitional forms documenting the evolution of amphibians, mammals, and birds, to name some major groups. We also have well-studied transitional forms documenting the evolution of whales, elephants, horses, and humans.”

Peking Man Skull (replica) presented at Paleozoological Museum of China, February 2009.
A replica of the Peking man skull presented at the Paleozoological Museum of China in February 2009.

Photo by Yan Li/Creative Commons

Evolution is not a scientific controversy, and there are no competing scientific theories. All of the evidence supports evolution, and the overwhelming majority of scientists accept the evidence for it. 

Another tactic creationists often use is to associate evolution with eugenics. One Responsive Ed quiz even asks students, “With regards to social Darwinism, do you think humans who are not capable should be left to die out, or should they be helped?”

“They imply that the control of human reproduction and the abandonment of people who might be ‘left to die’ are elements of evolutionary theory,” Miller said. “This is false, and the authors of these questions surely know that.”

Outright creationism appears in Responsive Ed’s section on the origins of life. It’s not subtle. The opening line of the workbook section, just as the opening line of the Bible, declares, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”

Responsive Ed’s butchering of evolution isn’t the only part of its science curriculum that deserves an F; it also misinforms students about vaccines and mauls the scientific method.

A young girl receives a band aid after getting an H1N1 flu vaccination, December 2009 in San Francisco, California.
A girl reacts to receiving the H1N1 flu vaccination in 2009 in San Francisco.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The only study linking vaccines to autism was exposed as a fraud and has been retracted, and the relationship has been studied exhaustively and found to be nonexistent. But a Responsive Ed workbook teaches, “We do not know for sure whether vaccines increase a child’s chance of getting autism, but we can conclude that more research needs to be done.”

On the scientific method, Responsive Ed confuses scientific theories and laws. It argues that theories are weaker than laws and that there is a natural progression from theories into laws, all of which is incorrect.

The Responsive Ed curriculum undermines Texas schoolchildren’s future in any possible career in science.

Dan Quinn, the communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog organization that monitors the religious right, said, “These materials should raise a big red flag for any parent or school administrator. It's bad enough that they promote the same discredited anti-evolution arguments that scientists debunked a long time ago. But the materials also veer into teaching religious beliefs that the courts have repeatedly ruled have no place in a public school science classroom.”

When it’s not directly quoting the Bible, Responsive Ed’s curriculum showcases the current creationist strategy to compromise science education, which the National Center for Science Education terms “stealth creationism.”

In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that teaching creationism is unconstitutional. In the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case, Judge John Jones III ruled in federal district court that intelligent design is still creationism and equally unconstitutional.

To get around court rulings, Responsive Ed and other creationists resort to rhetoric about teaching “all sides” of “competing theories” and claiming that this approach promotes “critical thinking.”

In response to a question about whether Responsive Ed teaches creationism, its vice president of academic affairs, Rosalinda Gonzalez, told me that the curriculum “teaches evolution, noting, but not exploring, the existence of competing theories.”

Bringing creationism into a classroom by undermining evolution and “noting … competing theories” is still unconstitutional. What’s more, contrary to Gonzalez’s statement, teaching about supernatural creation in the section on the origins of life is doing far more than noting competing theories.

In a previous Slate column on the Texas textbook wars, I explained that Texas’ current science standards were designed to compromise the teaching of evolution. The standards require teachers to “analyze, evaluate, and critique” evolution and teach “all sides” of evolution to encourage “critical thinking.” These requirements are a back-door way to enable teachers to attack evolution and inject creationism into the classroom. If teachers are questioned on their materials, they can shift the responsibility for what they’re teaching onto the state.

I asked Gonzalez if these science standards played a role in Responsive Ed’s curriculum on evolution, and her answer was yes.

Last month, science won the day in the battle over textbooks, and Texas adopted texts that teach evolution. But schools don’t necessarily have to adhere to this list of textbooks. They can choose, as Responsive Ed does, to use alternative textbooks, which may teach creationism.

Policymakers must understand that on a fundamental level teaching creationism is still unconstitutional. The Texas Legislature could take action to regulate these charter schools. The state Senate Education Committee is currently investigating another charter program due to its ties to the Pelican Educational Foundation, which has been under FBI investigation for alleged financial improprieties and alleged sexual misconduct. Sen. Dan Patrick, chair of the Texas Senate Education Committee and a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, told the Austin American-Statesman that “legislative scrutiny is necessary to ensure quality in Texas charter schools.” 

It’s high time for Patrick to give some legislative scrutiny to Responsive Ed. But in reality, he is a big fan of the program, which he “lauded in particular” at the Responsive Ed Charter Conference. It’s no wonder; he’s also a creationist. In a recent debate, Patrick said that he would help pass a law to allow creationism to be taught in public schools because, "We need to stand for what this nation was founded upon, which is the word of God.”

Patrick, who has not responded to requests for comment on Responsive Ed, is not the only leading Republican in Texas ready to toss out evolution or the separation of church and state. In fact, every Republican in the race for lieutenant governor in Texas, the incumbent included, is putting a religious agenda ahead of public education. David Dewhurst, the current lieutenant governor, said he “happens ‘to believe in creationism.’”

Greg Abbott, the current attorney general and front-runner in the Texas governor’s race, seems to be of a similar mindset. One piece of his campaign literature shows a gun and a Bible and includes the phrase, “Two things that every American should know how to use … Neither of which are taught in schools.” Abbott’s campaign hasn’t responded to questions about Responsive Ed or creationism in schools.

* * *

Science isn’t the only target of the religious right. The movement also undermines the study of history. I received a set of Responsive Ed U.S. history “Knowledge Units” through my public records request and discovered problems there, too.

In the section on the causes of World War I, the study materials suggest that “anti-Christian bias” coming out of the Enlightenment helped create the foundations for the war. The workbook states, “[T]he abandoning of religious standards of conduct and the breakdown in respect for governmental authority would lead to one of two options: either anarchy or dictatorship would prevail in the absence of a monarch.” Responsive Ed also asserts that a person’s values are based on solely his or her religious beliefs.

A section on World War II suggests that Japan’s military aggression was led by the samurai. They write, “Following World War I, Japan attempted to solve its economic and social problems by military means. The Samurai, a group promoting a military approach to create a vast Japanese empire in Asia, wanted to expand Japan’s influence along the Chinese mainland including many Pacific Islands.”

I asked one of my former professors about this. Rich Smith, an East Asia scholar at Rice University, said,  “There were no samurai in Japan after WWI; the samurai class was effectively abolished in 1876, after the Meiji Restoration in 1868.”

Responsive Ed continues to demonstrate its religious and cultural biases in a section on the Philippines, describing the population as made up of “Catholics, Moslems (Muslims), and pagans in various stages of civilization.”

When discussing stem cells, it claims President George W. Bush banned stem-cell research because it was done “primarily with the cells from aborted babies.” The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine debunks this on its website: “A common misconception is that the cells can come from aborted fetuses, which is in fact not possible.”

Colored scanning electron micrograph of human embryonic stem cells.
A colored scanning electron micrograph of human embryonic stem cells.

Courtesy of Miodrag Stojkovic/Science Photo Library

About LGBTQ rights, Responsive Ed says, “Laws against the homosexual lifestyle had been repealed in many states, but some states continued to ban the behavior.” The homosexual lifestyle?

About President Franklin Roosevelt, it teaches, “The New Deal had not helped the economy. However, it ushered in a new era of dependency on the Federal government.”

Perhaps the workbook’s best line comes when it explains that President Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam War draft dodgers out of “a misguided sense of compassion.”

One of Responsive Ed’s schools, Founders Classical Academy in Lewisville, Texas, where Responsive Ed is based, uses a curriculum far worse even than the Responsive Ed Knowledge Units. The school teaches American history from A Patriot’s History of the United States. The patriots book is “required reading,” according to Glenn Beck, and it opens with an interview between Rush Limbaugh and the author. It is a book that, as Dave Weigel says, “will make you stupider.”

This book teaches the superiority of the West, which in the 1400s and 1500s was apparently “quantum leaps” ahead of “native peoples,” including Ming Dynasty China, one of the most prosperous Chinese dynasties. It explains that the West was superior to “native populations” in battles because “Aztec chiefs and Moor sultans alike were completely vulnerable to massed firepower, yet without the legal framework of republicanism and civic virtue like Europe’s to replace its leadership cadre, a native army could be decapitated at its head by one volley.”

140114_SCI_CreationismTexas_bookpatriot

Instead of being taught that 16th-century Spain had a monarchy, students at Founders Classical Academy are incorrectly learning that it had a form of republican government that was superior to anything that “native peoples” had created.

On the feminist movement, Founders Classical Academy students are taught that feminism “created an entirely new class of females who lacked male financial support and who had to turn to the state as a surrogate husband.”

A Patriot’s History of the United States also addresses the “pinnacle” of the “western way of war” as demonstrated by the Iraq War and questions the legitimacy of Secretary of State John Kerry’s “suspect at best” Purple Hearts and Bronze Star.

* * *

Some of Responsive Ed’s lessons appear harmless at first, but their origin is troubling. Students also learn about “discernment,” which is defined as “understanding the deeper reasons why things happen.” In other sections, students learn other moral lessons such as “values” and “deference.”

These lessons were lifted directly from a company called Character First Education, which was founded by an Oklahoma businessman named Tom Hill. He is a follower of Bill Gothard, a minister who runs the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a Christian organization that teaches its members to incorporate biblical principles into daily life. IBLP is considered a cult by some of its former followers. Gothard developed character qualities associated with a list of “49 General Commands of Christ” that Hill adopted for his character curriculum. Hill then removed Gothard’s references to God and Bible verses and started marketing the curriculum to public schools and other public institutions.

The values taught by Responsive Ed can often be found word for word on Gothard’s website. The Responsive Ed unit on genetics includes “Thoroughness: Knowing what factors will diminish the effectiveness of my work or words if neglected.” The only difference is that Gothard’s website also adds “Proverbs 18:15” after the quote.

Many of Gothard’s teachings revolve around obedience to men, especially that of the wife and the children. Gothard has upset even other conservative Christians. In an interview for an article published by Religion Dispatches, Don Veinot, a conservative Christian and founder of the Midwest Christian Outreach, accused Gothard of “creating a culture of fear.” Gothard has been accused of emotional and sexual abuse by some of his former followers, “happening as far back as the mid- to late-1970’s and as recently as this year.”

Responsive Ed and Character First may have removed the references to God and Bible verses from the curriculum that is being used in public schools, but it is clear that the line between church and state is still being blurred. And nothing that Gothard has created should be allowed near children.

Responsive Ed has plenty of connections to other fundamentalist right-wing organizations as well. Its website’s “Helpful Information” section directs parents to Focus on the Family under the heading of “Family Support.” Under “Values” it steers students to the Traditional Values Coalition, whose website includes a header that says, “Say NO to Obama. Stop Sharia in America.”

* * *

In late October, I visited iSchool High, a Responsive Ed public charter in Houston, and asked the campus director, Michael Laird, about reports that the school was teaching creationism.

A few days before my visit, writing for Salon, Jonny Scaramanga, an activist who reports on Christian education, had exposed a section of iSchool’s curriculum that blamed Hitler’s atrocities on the theory of evolution. Scaramanga had been sent the curriculum by Joshua Bass, the parent of a former iSchool student. Bass rightly viewed this curriculum as an attempt to sneak religion into the classroom and teach creationism.

“Oh, you’re media,” Laird said, sounding strained as he scribbled a phone number on a pink sticky note for me. “You’ll have to talk to the main office.”

I was quickly shuffled out, but while I was not allowed to see any curriculum or talk to any teachers, I did get to look into a classroom from the outside and verified that the setup looked exactly like a picture of an Accelerated Christian Education classroom I had seen on Scaramanga’s website.

The ACE plant and Responsive Ed headquarters in Dallas, Texas.
The ACE plant near the Responsive Ed headquarters outside of Dallas.*

Courtesy of Zack Kopplin

ACE is a popular Christian home-school curriculum that’s also used in many private schools and publicly funded voucher schools. It’s the most infamous Christian home-school curriculum and for years taught that the Loch Ness monster was real in its attempts to disprove evolution.

Bass discovered that Responsive Ed was founded by Donald Howard, who had also founded ACE. But it wasn’t immediately clear exactly how interconnected these two organizations are.

ACE and Responsive Ed are both headquartered in Lewisville, just 4 miles apart, and staff members appear to rotate between the two organizations.

When I asked Responsive Ed’s Gonzalez about her charter network’s history with Howard and ACE, she said that none of the ACE founders, including Howard, had been associated with Responsive Ed for the past seven or eight years. But I found that five members of Responsive Ed’s current board and leadership group used to work for ACE (also known as School of Tomorrow). Responsive Ed's current CEO, Charles Cook, spent several years in charge of marketing at ACE before he joined Responsive Ed, and he designed the original curriculum that Responsive Ed used.

Raymond Moore, one of Responsive Ed’s earliest principals (at that time Responsive Ed was known as Eagle Charter Schools), explained that while Responsive Ed “took the Christian vernacular out” of ACE curriculum, they still “put in character traits that reflect our values.” He also noted that “almost everyone in the management has been in the ministry.”

Howard expressed this same sentiment about his charter schools in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 1998, saying, “Take the Ten Commandments—you can rework those as ‘success principles’ by rewording them. We will call it truth, we will call it principles, we will call it values. We will not call it religion.” (Hat tip to the Texas Freedom Network and Scaramanga for locating this quote.)

One figure stands out when it comes to revealing the political and religious agenda behind the Responsive Ed charter schools. ACE’s former vice president, Ronald Johnson, founded a curriculum company, Paradigm Accelerated Curriculum, which also ran four public charter schools in Texas. Paradigm’s curriculum teaches abstinence in English class. ChristianBook.com describes the science curriculum as teaching “evolution from a young-earth creationist perspective.” Paradigm’s website also says that the curriculum is “carefully designed to equip high school students to defend their faith” and is being used in public schools in 11 states.

Paradigm and Johnson are closely connected to Responsive Ed. In 2010, Responsive Ed absorbed Paradigm, taking over its schools and replacing its board. Paradigm noted in a press release that this allowed Responsive Ed to “incorporate the PACS system and curriculum across Texas and in other states.” The release described this as “a ‘win-win’ situation for both organizations” because Responsive Ed schools already use a “learning system based on a manual designed and written by Dr. Johnson while he was Vice President of [Accelerated Christian Education].” Before 2010, Responsive Ed and Paradigm operated on the same model, and now Paradigm and Responsive Ed are the same organization.

The release also added that Johnson would continue his role in marketing Paradigm curriculum (now for Responsive Ed) and would train Responsive Ed’s teachers and help design the curriculum used in their schools.

While Responsive Ed attempts to preserve a facade of secularism, on the Paradigm website, Johnson is far more explicit about his goal of subverting charter programs.

Johnson believes the public education system strips students “of access to the foundational Judeo-Christian moral and economic virtues.” Other problems with public education include “sex education classes and distribution of free condoms” and “tolerance of homosexual life-styles and Islam.”

Excerpts from Responsive Ed workbooks
Excerpts from Responsive Ed workbooks*

Courtesy of Zack Kopplin

He thinks that school choice is the way to bring “Judeo-Christian values” back into classrooms and cites other right-wing activists including Tim LaHaye, John Hagee, David Barton’s WallBuilders, Jerry Falwell, and Focus on the Family as champions of using education reform to do this.

There’s just one problem. Johnson recognizes that “a major weakness exists in the school choice movement.” Charter schools are still public! These former ACE executives, according to Johnson, are pretending to observe the “so-called ‘separation of church and state’ doctrine” in order to use charter schools like Responsive Ed as a Trojan horse to sneak religion back into public schools.

Will anyone sue to stop them?

I asked Dan Quinn at the Texas Freedom Network about potential remedies to what Responsive Ed is teaching. He said, “These materials lie to students about science, and using them puts the school—and the taxpayers who fund it—at risk of a lawsuit it would almost certainly lose.”

There are more than 17,000 students in Responsive Ed schools, and any one of them, or their parents, could file suit because their constitutional rights have been violated.

Rather than it taking a lawsuit, I hope that legislators will take the appropriate actions to regulate these schools and improve Texas charter policy.

Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education told me, “Some people don't realize that the First Amendment applies to charter schools just as much as to any other public school. Teaching creationism or other sectarian religious claims as if they were science is wrong anywhere, but it's especially bad to use tax dollars to force one person's religion onto school kids.”

I asked Quinn about charter rules in Texas, and he said, “Weak state oversight has long been one of the biggest problems with the charter school system in Texas, and the state simply can't look the other way when a charter tries to skirt the law and undermine the education of their own students.”

I don’t think other charter schools can look away either; Responsive Ed is an internal threat to the charter movement. Rather than educating students, it’s interested in indoctrinating them with one sect of religion. If weak oversight allows Responsive Ed to survive, it makes the entire charter system look bad.

The Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes has published the leading report on the academic effect of major charter operators across the country. The report found that while students who attended Knowledge Is Power Program schools experienced positive academic gains, “Responsive Ed had a significant negative impact on student reading gains and a non-significant effect in math.” (Responsive Ed responded by criticizing the CREDO report, and CREDO issued a response to Responsive Ed’s response.)

Mike Feinberg, a co-founder of the KIPP charter schools, told me that “charter school authorizers should hold Texas charter schools to the highest standards in the realms of academics, financial solvency, and student safety.”

A conservative education reform think tank, the Fordham Institute, suggested that because of low-performing networks like Responsive Ed cited in CREDO’s report, charter authorizers needed to make changes. Fordham called on authorizers to “strengthen … practices” when it came to their responsibility to “renew or not renew the charter school’s contract based on school performance, especially academic performance.”

Texas has capped the number of charters in the state at 300, and when bad charters that teach creationism are allowed to remain in the system, it prevents other charter operators from opening better schools. It’s fundamentally anti-charter to allow Responsive Ed schools to remain in Texas’ program. Responsive Education Solutions must have their charter revoked.

It is clearly past time for Texas to tighten the rules surrounding charters and enforce accountability to prevent any other religious programs from subverting the public education system.

This is a moment of truth for the charter movement and for Texas politicians. Will they support removing from charter programs these schools that break the law?

Correction, Jan. 16, 2014: Two photo captions had incorrect information. The caption of the photo of the ACE headquarters incorrectly stated that it is also an image of the Responsive Ed headquarters. It is not. Additionally, the ACE headquarters is in Lewisville, Texas, not Dallas. A second photo caption identified the image as excerpts from A Patriot's History of the United States. The excerpts are from Responsive Ed workbooks.

Zack Kopplin is a science education activist who has fought against creationism being taught with public money.

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