Fallout from 1925 school reforms

The last time Tennessee passed significant education reforms was 1925. After a grueling fight, the General Assembly established, among other things, a pension system, local school boards, and a state board of education.

The reforms served as models for Michigan, Ohio, and other states, says Billy Stair, director of the state General Assembly's now-disbanded select committee on education. But in the deals cut to pass the reforms, an amendment was added prohibiting any teaching in public schools that contradicted the biblical account of creation. No one expected it to be enforced, Mr. Stair says.

But the American Civil Liberties Union offered to pay the legal expenses of a teacher willing to challenge the ban. According to an article in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, a metallurgical engineer met with a local druggist and concocted a plot to spark developers' interest in Dayton, Tenn. They convinced John T. Scopes, a math teacher who had only briefly substituted in a science class, to be the defendant. And with the help of a staged fight, William Jennings Bryan as prosecuting attorney and Clarence Darrow as the defense, Dayton became the center of attention. The ''Monkey Trial'' was on.

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''The reputation that has stayed with us ever since is that stupid Monkey Trial,'' Mr. Stair says. ''When I went to school up North - and that was the '70 s - that's what people knew (about Tennessee education).''

It is fervently hoped here that the state's new education reforms will erase that memory. ''We've had the monkey on our backs for too long,'' Mr. Stair says.

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