schools chief Diane Douglas

schools chief Diane Douglas

The state Board of Education on Monday rebuffed a bid by schools chief Diane Douglas to adopt standards for public schools crafted by a Christian college for Arizona.

But whether schools may be allowed to use the standards crafted by Hillsdale College remains an open question.

Several board members said it might be appropriate to have that as an option for schools that choose not to follow the standards for history, social studies and science that the board did adopt – barely – by a 6-4 vote.

 And Jared Taylor, a Gilbert Council member and a board member who cast a dissent, said he hopes to revisit the issue at future board meetings.

The board’s decision was a welcome one for Anjleen Kaur Gumer, a Sikh mother of two sons who attend school in Scottsdale Unified School District. Gumer and other members of the Sikh community in Arizona spoke out against the Hillsdale standards for their failure to adequately cover world religions, including Sikhism.

“I’m just happy that we took this up to make sure that our children are going to be fairly educated on all different religions and not just a few,” Gumer said.

The Hillsdale standards predominantly focused on Christianity, Islam and Judaism with some mention of Buddhism and Hinduism.

“I think it is an amazing step forward for the state of Arizona to have education that accurately represents our communities,” Gumer said.

A group from the Sikh community, including Gumer and her six-year-old son, urged board members to ensure that their own faith is taught to students when they learn about world religions.

Rana Singh Sodhi reminded board members how his brother, Balbi, was killed at his Mesa gas station and convenience store four days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by someone who apparently decided that he must be a Muslim terrorist because he wore a turban.

“If we can save one person’s life through education, even, I think it is worth it,’’ he said.

The board took no action on the request.

The Hillsdale proposal came under scrutiny at least in part amid concerns that they were not so much standards as actual curriculum of what is to be taught.

 And then there was the emphasis on Judeo-Christian teachings, far more than in current state standards in teaching comparative religions.

For example, under the concept of lasting ideas from ancient civilizations, it mentions the idea of a ``covenant’’ between God and man, and ``important stories’’ like creation and the calling of Abraham. That continues into the New Testament with stories on the baptism of Jesus, walking on water and the resurrection.

Douglas bemoaned the proposal as just another in a long line of so-called ``reforms’’ that are "just more fads, gimmicks and tricks, with lots of testing added on for good measure.’’ And then, she said there has been ``inadequate’’ input from parents and the community.

``They should be telling us what they expect and what they need for their children’s education and not being told what will be put upon them,’’ she said.

For Gumer, a parent of two boys, the action taken by the board was exactly what she wanted, and she was encouraged by the support she received from likeminded individuals at the meeting who attended to express their opinions on a range of topics, not just religion.

Taylor, the chief executive of Heritage Academy, a charter school, had more specific objections to making these standards mandatory. One, he said, was the failure to provide ``age-appropriate’’ content to students in kindergarten through third grade.

``You ask them to do a lot of conceptual work,’’ he said. ``And their brains aren’t ready for it.’’

Taylor said schools should be free to adopt either the standards approved by the board on Monday or the Hillsdale standards which were developed for charter schools.

Gumer said that the Board’s work is not done.

“I think we just need to a better job of making sure our standards are updated in a timely basis,” she said, noting that this is the first update in over a decade.

She also said districts and the board must now provide the support teachers need to effectively teach topics covered by the new standards.

“We need to make sure our teachers are educated in how to teach this new content,” she said, noting that the new standards include hundreds of changes across several topics, not just religion.

The board also adopted significant changes to the science standards for public schools.

The new standards incorporate some last-minute changes proposed by the Arizona Science Teachers Association. And the most notable change includes a clear statement that “the unity and diversity of organism, living and extinct, is the result of evolution.’’

Sara Torres, the group’s executive director, said these standards will ``protect teachers of science from being put in a position of teaching non-scientific ideas.’’

After the vote, Douglas insisted she was not against the teaching of evolution. And Douglas said she even is willing to concede that “science, to some degree, has proven adaptation of species.’’ Where she parts company is taking the next steps.

“Show me where any scientist has proven or replicated that life came from non-living matter or that, in the example we see in the museums, that man evolved from an ape,’’ Douglas said.