State School Superintendent Kathy Cox had an urgent message for legislative budget writers last January as she discussed her top priority for the coming academic year: improving student performance on high school graduation tests, especially the science portion.
The numbers support her. For the graduation tests administered last spring, more than 26,000 students failed the science portion - almost one-third of those who took the test. Among African-American and Latino students, failure rates topped 60 percent. That depressing record is a major reason why Georgia's high school graduation rate is among the nation's lowest, at 63 percent.
The superintendent was correct in her assessment that science is the weak point for Georgia students, but she neglected to mention the name of the person who should be held at least partly responsible for this: Kathryn B. Cox, state superintendent of schools.
It was just a year ago that Cox, during a long-overdue revision of the public school curriculum, ordered the word "evolution" to be deleted from the science curriculum, along with any mention of the "Big Bang" theory and the origins of the universe, the theory of plate tectonics and the concept of the descent of living organisms from a common ancestor.
These concepts are crucial to the study of biology, physics and geology, but they suggest that the earth is more than 10,000 years old - and thus upset Christian fundamentalists who want the biblical theory of creation taught as scientific fact and who are a key component of the Republican Party.
Cox, who is a Republican, eventually reversed herself after numerous protests and allowed evolution and other forbidden concepts to be put back into the curriculum, but not until after Georgia had been subjected to nationwide media attention and ridicule as a state full of Bible-thumpers.
She has not been the only educator to bow down to fundamentalists. The Cobb County school board put stickers in its biology textbooks telling students, essentially, to ignore such radical theories as evolution. Cobb's school board members lost a federal court case over the stickers, but they are continuing to fight this lost cause through an appeal - thus keeping alive the media story that Georgia is the modern-day home of the Scopes monkey trial.
Shortly after the General Assembly convened this year, Rep. Ben Bridges, a Republican, introduced a bill that would require teachers to introduce "scientific evidence" challenging evolution in their classes - another backdoor approach to bringing creationism into the curriculum.
Like it or not, evolution has long been accepted by the mainstream scientific community and is the underlying foundation of the life sciences. This attitude by elected officials, many would argue, is holding our students back in the area where they perform most poorly.
There is also a cost to the state in terms of economic development. Take a look at the new business announcements that have come out of Gov. Sonny Perdue's office over the past two years: tire factories, carpet mills, warehouse distribution centers. It's great that these businesses are coming to Georgia, of course; but these are not exactly the high-tech, high-paying jobs that governors lust after.
What CEO of a computer services or biotech firm would want to locate a technological facility in a state where elected officials want to strike any mention of evolution in the textbooks? Why put your business in an area where one-third of the students can't even pass the science portion of their high school graduation test?
That's the tragedy of it. To appease the Christian fundamentalists who don't want their children to be tainted by exposure to modern learning, we would deny the majority of public school students the kind of education that might make them capable of holding jobs that pay more than the minimum wage. Who are we helping here?
Kathy Cox is not a bad person. She's certainly a marked improvement over the person she replaced as school superintendent. I believe that she's sincere when she says she wants to improve the scores that students make on their science tests (and all other tests, for that matter).
But if she's looking for the reason why students do so poorly in science, then she - along with members of the Cobb school board and legislators like Ben Bridges - need do nothing more than look in the nearest mirror.
Tom Crawford, editor of the Capitolimpact.com news service, covers politics for Georgia Trend.