The state board's 10-member makeup has resulted in many tie votes on high-profile education issues.
Debate over evolution vs. creationism is the latest conflict to put the Kansas State Board of Education in the news.
But for the past two years, the 10-member board has been fraught with ideological tug-of-war contests and stalemates, pitting conservative Republicans against moderate Republicans and Democrats over issues often not resolved to either side's liking.
"This number 10 is not working," said Lawrence public schools Supt. Kathleen Williams.
The board members, elected from 10 districts statewide, have not voted on the new science standards that are at the heart of the evolution-or-creationism debate. But in the past two years, deadlocks in the form of 5-5 votes have resulted following debates on curriculum standards, student assessments, teacher licensing, accreditation for nongovernmental schools and the issue of who should oversee School to Work initiatives.
A board at loggerheads
"Clearly, there are some staggering issues, and this (ideological split) makes them (the board) dysfunctional," Williams said. "It saddens me to know you have elected officials who are supposed to be making the best decisions for Kansas students and they can't reach a consensus."
The board members' inability to agree on key issues has put them in the spotlight with legislators and other policymakers who are advocating change.
Two Lawrence legislators are among those floating ideas on how best to fix a board that many see as broken.
State Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, has introduced an amendment that would drastically alter the face of the board.
"I have grave concerns about the state board of education," Sloan said. "I've had a bill introduced the last couple of years to have the governor appoint the commissioner of education, with the Senate confirming that person."
Under his plan, Sloan said, the commissioner of education would sit on the governor's Cabinet. Currently, the commissioner is appointed by the board of education.
"The commissioner of education would be accountable to the governor and able to participate in all discussions," Sloan said. "A change is necessary."
Although legislators and other leaders have frequently grumbled about the board since a 1966 state constitutional amendment gave it policy-making authority independent from the Legislature, Kansans have voted down three previous attempts to reform the way the state board functions. Attempts to redefine the board were rejected by voters in 1974, 1986 and 1990.
A change proposed during the past legislative session by state Rep. Troy Findley, D-Lawrence, would add an 11th member to the board, thus eliminating tie votes.
Findley said he also is considering another approach for next year: In addition to adding a member, there would be some modification to the board's self-executing powers. Under such a plan, the Legislature or governor -- or both -- would have the right to review board decisions.
"There is a lot more emphasis on revamping the board," Findley said. "Is this the best way to govern and coordinate K-12 education as we go into a new century? Unfortunately, the board should be focusing on the needs of all Kansas children, and the deadlock is counterproductive, not only to teachers and parents, but most of all for Kansas schoolchildren."
Findley said he would rather see the board revised than abolished.
"I don't think it's beyond repair," he said. "The board has had problems with key issues, but by and large it's been able to move forward. But heading in to the future I think it can't continue the way it is and be effective. I think it needs to be fixed. I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak."
Science standards conflict
The board's most recent complication came when board member Steve Abrams introduced a proposed 91-page revision to the recommendation of science standards. The board is scheduled to vote on the standards in August.
The board and state education commissioner appointed a 27-member committee to write the standards, which the committee did before Abrams introduced his new version.
Abrams' version would change the definition of science as set forth by national science associations.
Abrams wants to eliminate all but one reference to evolution and add a definition of creation as "the idea that the design and complexity of the design of the cosmos requires an intelligent designer."
Abrams, an Arkansas City veterinarian and archconservative Republican who last year bowed out of the GOP gubernatorial race to support David Miller's unsuccessful campaign, was unavailable for comment.
State board chair Linda Holloway of Shawnee disagreed with the idea that the board needed revamping in a recent letter to Legislative Post Auditor Barbara Hinton, after a performance audit report found examples of disagreement among board members.
"It must be noted that on the vast number of issues upon which the state board has acted, a majority opinion has been found."
According to Holloway, during 1997 and 1998, the state board voted on more than 800 issues, with only 38 resulting in a tie.
"We believe that the state board's deliberations over the past two years have been reflective not only of the diversity of opinions on important educational issues but also a testimony to the commitment of the board to find ways to resolve difference of opinion for the benefit of students in Kansas," she said.
But the 38 deadlocks have been high-profile deadlocks.
Graves weighs in
As he spoke at a Lawrence Rotary Club luncheon earlier this month, Gov. Bill Graves said he was frustrated by the state board.
"The disappointment probably stems from the fact that we seem to keep revisiting this 10-member board, these five-five philosophical splits over everything," Graves said in a subsequent news conference. "We're in the process of moving the School to Work program out of the State Board of Education because they couldn't agree on the merits of the program, how to properly administer it and make it work to the benefit of kids in our state."
Evidence of Graves' frustration with the board has been the shifting of governance of community colleges and technical schools from the board's control this year to a revamped Board of Regents, and, at the board's request, the removal of the School to Work program.
"It is not a board, in my mind, that ought to be having these personal, political/philosophical debates about evolution and creation," the governor said.
Graves has been critical of the board. But unlike Lawrence lawmakers and others, he hasn't offered any proposals to change it.
"There are folks who want to have a strong secretary of education as a member of the governor's Cabinet," Graves said. "Others want to have an appointed board of education, still allowing them to select the commissioner of education. All those options are out there."
Graves' spokesman Mike Matson said it is too early in the discussion to know which plan Graves will back when the Legislature convenes in January 2000.
"It is so early in the discussion he doesn't have an opinion at this time," Matson said. "He's just eager for the discussion to begin."
-- JL Watson's phone message number is 832-7145. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.