Archive for Monday, August 18, 2003

State BOE elections spark evolution debates

August 18, 2003

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— Connie Morris was exasperated by the battery of cameras and reporters watching her and her fellow State Board of Education members as if they were zoo animals.

The media came to the board's meeting last week to chronicle another round in Kansas' ongoing Monkey Trial, a debate over evolution and its place in Kansas education.

Morris, a St. Francis Republican, said evolution is a "silly" issue and the media "need to get over it."

But evolution probably will be the defining issue in campaigns for board seats again next year. And having an elected board oversee public schools allows the debate to be sustained.

"The reason it can be done is, there's a venue," said Burdett Loomis, chairman of Kansas University's political science department.

The venue has existed since 1966, when voters amended the Kansas Constitution to create the 10-member board, elected by districts.

Until evolution became an issue, board races were largely the backwater of Kansas politics. Loomis even suggested, "It's a little unclear as to why the board exists."

Defense of board's existence

But board members rally to its defense, whatever their views on evolution and other policy issues.

"We thrash these things out in public forums," said board member Bill Wagnon, a Topeka Democrat. "In the long run, that's the best guarantee that education policy is going to reflect Kansas."

Most recently, the board didn't tackle evolution directly but discussed whether it wanted a full review of existing science testing standards.

Five Republicans, including Morris, usually identified as conservatives, favored revising only test questions and materials for teachers. Three Republicans and two Democrats, most often described as the moderate bloc, favored a complete review, with a rewriting of testing standards possible.

Last week, the board approved a compromise, voting 7-3 for a full review of science standards. But it delayed the start of the review until August 2004 so that a final decision on standards comes after 2004 elections.

Voters will fill five of 10 seats and decide -- before the board acts on science standards -- how evolution-friendly it will be.

Board member John Bacon, an Olathe Republican and a conservative, said a decision on science standards should wait "until the public has a chance to weigh in again."

"I just don't think this current board, with this makeup, could approve science standards," he said.

Reporters were drawn to the board's meeting by memories of the last fight over evolution.

In 1999, a committee of science educators drafted testing standards describing evolution as one of the most important ideas for students to learn.

Some board members balked and, with the help of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, in Cleveland, Mo., they drafted alternative standards that mentioned evolution only once. The board approved those standards, 6-4.

The decision did not ban evolution from Kansas classrooms or require the teaching of alternatives such as creationism, but some scientists worried a movement toward those goals had started. Creationists, Biblical literalists and their conservative sympathizers won a big symbolic victory.

Ridicule from scientific quarters followed, and Kansas was portrayed around the globe as backward.

Opponents of the 1999 standards came to see supporters as anti-education and even anti-intellectual. Backers eventually viewed the criticism as an attempt to limit freedom of thought or an attack on cherished values.

Voting on evolution

Elections in 2000 left the board with a 7-3, evolution-friendly majority. It promptly revised the science standards in 2001.

Last year, with evolution largely absent as an issue, Morris and another conservative, Iris Van Meter, a Thayer Republican, ousted moderate board members in GOP primaries.

The board's 1999 decision was crucial in creating the ongoing debate over evolution. To spark the fire, someone had to object when educators proposed standards reflecting a view that evolution is more an explanation than a theory.

It's hard to imagine the board containing anyone who would balk at evolution-friendly standards had members been appointed by then-Gov. Bill Graves, the moderate GOP's leader.

Nor would an appointed secretary or commissioner -- undoubtedly trained in a college of education and seasoned by time as a school administrator -- seem likely to hesitate over evolution-friendly standards.

Conservatives like Bacon and Steve Abrams, the Arkansas City Republican involved in drafting the 1999 standards, had to sit in board seats. Voters were the most likely to put them there.

Voters, of course, can remove conservatives and create an evolution-friendly majority.

And the possibility of such change through biennial elections keeps the evolution fire stoked.

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