W.Va. Board of Education scraps plan to amend requirements for teaching about climate change

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CHARLESTON, West Virginia — After getting an earful from citizens, the West Virginia Board of Education voted Wednesday to scrap an amendment to instruction about climate change that had been suggested by a board member who says he doesn't believe it's a "foregone conclusion" that the climate is in fact changing.

The board voted to rescind changes it made to teaching requirements for education science standards. Instead, the board placed the proposal with its original language intact for a 30-day public comment period.

The vote came at the suggestion of Clayton Burch, the state Department of Education's chief academic officer.

"This is time to ensure that we get it right," Burch said.

If approved, the standards would be effective in the 2016-17 school year.

"This is great news," WVU biology department chair Richard Thomas said in an email. He said the board "did what was right for the students and teachers of West Virginia."

The original language was based on the national Next Generation Policy Standards. West Virginia was among the states to provide input to develop the national standards.

The proposed changes — a few lines in a 70-page document — were made at the request of state school board member Wade Linger. He had said he didn't believe human-influenced climate change is a "foregone conclusion."

Most scientists disagree with that contention.

One proposed standard, in its original language, required that sixth graders ask questions to clarify evidence of factors that have caused global temperatures to rise over the past century. The board had changed the phrasing to the rise "and fall" in global temperatures. Linger said he simply was adding balance to the language, pointing to temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The National Science Teachers Association, a lead partner in developing the national standards, said the change risked confusing students between the concepts of weather and climate.

Board president Gayle Manchin had requested the second look at the board's earlier changes, which she said were intended to encourage more student debate on climate change but ended up raising questions about the policy's integrity.

"I felt it was extremely important to hear from public input (and) allow the opportunity for the standards to be revised, re-entered for public comment and be accepted the way they had originally been written," she said.

Although no comments were offered during a previous public comment period, Wednesday's hearing generated plenty of talk. More than a dozen people lined up before the vote to speak for and against the revised proposal.

At least two speakers invoked the work done by Manchin's husband, Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who is pushing back against a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and stem climate change. Coal advocates fear it could further cripple Appalachia's already-dwindling fossil fuel industry.

West Virginia University geography professor Amy Hessl, who studies climate change, said in a telephone interview that the board's earlier action "ends up painting a picture of West Virginia as backward.

"Before they start changing the curriculum, they need to make sure that they themselves are educated," Hessl said. "The kinds of misinformation that's going on on the state board is an example why we need to educate our young people on climate change so that they can distinguish between fact and fiction."

Retired teacher Jim Sconyers of Cranesville told the board he would have been outraged if his son was required to accept "the ill-founded opinions of uninformed laymen in place of science in his science studies.

"I am really sorry to see that this episode has made West Virginia a national and international laughingstock one more time."

Most of the board favored shelving the changes in a voice vote Wednesday. Linger and board member Tom Campbell voted against it.

"I actually am amazed that there's such a huge spark over simply wanting more information provided to the students," Linger said.

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