Archive for Sunday, September 20, 1998


September 20, 1998


A retired Kansas University professor wants to improve public education as a moderate Democrat on the state Board of Education.

Democrat Jack Davidson of Lawrence views his role in the state Board of Education race as that of an urgently needed tiebreaker.

``If I win, the moderates have a majority on the state board. If I lose, they have gridlock -- five to five,'' he said.

Davidson, a retired Kansas University physics and astronomy professor, said the two-year ideological standoff between political moderates and conservatives on the Board of Education had to be broken in the best interests of children.

Victory in November by GOP nominee John Bacon of Olathe in the 3rd District, which includes Douglas County, would allow the philosophical tie to persist and hamper the board's ability to get work done, he said. Bacon was the hand-picked candidate to replace retiring state board Chair Kevin Gilmore, also a conservative from Olathe.

Davidson said the key to defeating Bacon could be found in vote totals from the primary race between Bacon and former Lawrence school Supt. Dan Neuenswander of Baldwin. Bacon edged Neuenswander, a moderate Republican, by 15 votes out of 27,000 cast.

``I expect moderates, even Republicans, to support my campaign,'' Davidson said. He said he and Neuenswander ``think a lot alike.''

Davidson, who has never held political office, had no primary opposition in a district that includes Douglas County and portions of Johnson, Miami, Shawnee and Osage counties.

California livin'

John P. ``Jack'' Davidson, 73, was raised in the foothills around Glendale, Calif. The area's population has soared since his youth.

``We used to go out and shoot jackrabbits,'' he said. ``You couldn't do that today.''

Davidson's relatives -- a great-grandfather, grandmother and others -- were teachers. He set out to follow family tradition.

He enrolled at the University of California in Berkeley, but World War II years in Europe, Davidson graduated in 1948. He entered graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, opting for the one-on-one mentoring of physics and astronomy faculty there.

``I wanted a personal relationship, which I think is important in education,'' he said.

He married his wife, Mary, in 1949. Their four grown children, who attended Lawrence public schools, are planning their parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

After completing graduate degrees in 1951 and 1952, Davidson conducted research for one year at Columbia University in New York and taught two years in Brazil -- lecturing in Portuguese -- and two years in Norway.

``Winters were bitter,'' he said. ``The sun would come up at 10 and set at 2.''

When folks at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest engineering school in the Americas, inquired about his availability, the family packed up and moved to Troy, N.Y. He taught young scientists there for 10 years before joining the KU faculty and moving to Lawrence in 1966. He served 13 years as chairman of physics and astronomy before retiring in 1996.

In the interim, he directed KU's high school astronomy camp and headed a high-school science competition in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma for 17 years.

``I think I know education pretty well,'' Davidson said. ``Education is the state's most important activity.''

Basics and beyond

Davidson said conservatives active in the state's education system had placed too much emphasis on the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

``Their work is just not in the best interests of kids,'' said Davidson, pushing dark-rimmed glasses back in place. ``The three R's isn't enough. Technology is a bugaboo for these people. The reality is that many jobs are computer-driven.''

Davidson said he would push to ensure every student was computer literate upon graduation from high school.

``In public education,'' he said, ``students must be prepared to enter the world that we have made for them. It isn't the world of telegraphs.''

Davidson said he was troubled by attempts to inject religion into public school classrooms. Students are allowed by the courts to pray quietly to themselves. It would be disruptive to return mandatory prayer to schools, he said.

``This country is a religious country and it has strong religious institutions. Why would people want to move religion out of religious institutions into public schools? Why have state religion?''

Davidson said a serious issue in Kansas schools -- especially in smaller, rural districts -- was a shortage of science and foreign language teachers. He said teacher salaries had to be increased and the alternative-certification system improved to counter the problem. The current certification system excludes too many college graduates with special training who didn't obtain teaching credentials, he said. The holder of a university physics degree should be permitted to teach science and the person who earns a diploma in Spanish ought to be allowed in the classrooms, he said.

``A lot of our students would make excellent teachers, but they find going back to take education courses daunting,'' he said.

He said class sizes needed to be reduced, because ``national studies show that students learn more in smaller classes.''

Davidson also wants to adjust the current school calendar.

``We should think seriously about spending only one month of vacation in the summer,'' he said. Teachers would need to be compensated for the additional work, he said, but students would benefit.

He said local control should remain the cornerstone of the state's education system. Safeguarding that idea is the duty of all board members, he said.

``It's not only tradition, but it's a way to focus on local needs.''

Davidson said he had grown weary of stories about people who graduate from high school unable to read.

``These are human tragedies, but to say the school system is failing in Kansas because of a handful of horror stories isn't fair. I'm tired of people saying we have a lousy school system. It's not true in Kansas.''

He said Kansans need to realize tax cuts could damage public education.

``You'll have to face facts,'' he said. ``If you want to maintain schools and make them better -- you'll have to spend the money.''

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is

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