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Board reopens classroom debate on climate change, approves amended standards

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Board reopens classroom debate on climate change, approves amended standards
By Samuel Speciale, Charleston Daily Mail 

Two months after withdrawing its controversial science education standards with modifications that would have asked students to question the scientific community’s assertion that global warming is caused by human greenhouse emissions, the West Virginia Board of Education voted Thursday to amend the standards once again to allow classroom debate on climate change.

Despite months of national scrutiny from media outlets, teachers and educational organizations that support scientific research proving human activity causes climate change, the board voted 6-2 to approve the newly amended standards, which will now go into effect on July 1, 2016.

While the amended language differs from what the board redacted in January, after unanimously approving the changes in December, the amended standards contain the same directives, which allow students to use scientific models to form their own conclusions on the debated topic.

Opponents of the changes, pointing out peer-reviewed research on climate change, have said that scientific facts should not be debated. Many also accused the board of catering to special interests like West Virginia’s coal industry. However, supporters of the changes, including board members Wade Linger and Tom Campbell, argued that “science is never settled” and that debate will lead students into a deeper understanding of the issue.

The original amendments, proposed by Linger and inserted by Department of Education staff, would have had sixth-graders “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise and fall in global temperatures over the past century.” The unaltered standard, as it was written by Achieve Inc., required students to ask questions only about the rise in global temperatures.

The new amendment removes both “rise and fall” and replaces it with “changes.”

Other amended standards that would have had students discuss natural forces like Milankovitch cycles and how they affect climate change were scaled back to remove language about the cycles, which are long-term changes in the Earth’s orbit often cited by those who don’t believe global warming is caused by human activity.

The board’s surprise 6-2 decision, which came after January’s 6-2 vote to pull its changes, was made possible by a few shakeups amongst its members.

When the board voted in January to redact the altered standards and place them back on public comment in their original state, the board’s composition was much different. Former member Robert Dunlevy, who opposed the changes, was serving past his expired term, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had yet to appoint his replacement, Jim Wilson, and Beverley Kingery, who filled a seat that had been vacant for two years. Those two joined the board later that month on Jan. 22.

Upon the appointment, it was believed among board members there would be enough votes to approve the unaltered standards even if Wilson and Kingery sided with Linger and Campbell. Those two were the only members to vote against pulling the changes.

While Wilson was absent Thursday and did not vote, Kingery sided with Linger and Campbell, and those three were joined by Tina Combs, Mike Green and Lloyd Jackson, bringing the vote to a commanding 6-2. Board President Gayle Manchin and Bill White voted against the amended standards.

The board was supposed to vote on the standards during its meeting on Wednesday, but the agenda item was moved to Thursday. The board also delayed action on the standards in March when department officials said they were processing an unusually large number of responses from the public commenting period.

The department received thousands of comments that supported the standards’ original language, and while many were in favor of the changes, they were much fewer in number.

In total the department presented board members with more than 800 pages of comments from local residents, teachers and other community members as well as petitions from West Virginia University, the state Science Teachers Association and other organizations. Many of the comments came from individuals and organizations outside West Virginia.