Analysis: Evolution likely to be key issue in school board races

? Voters in Kansas should expect to hear plenty about evolution next year.

Five State Board of Education members face re-election in 2006, and a debate the board expects to have this summer on science standards is likely to be the biggest issue.

The board now has a 6-4 majority of evolution skeptics, all conservative Republicans. Four of the five members up for election next year are part of that bloc.

“We’ve got to have a change,” said board member Sue Gamble, a Shawnee Republican and a member of the board’s evolution-defending bloc. “The majority has to change, or we’re going to take a step backward.”

The conservatives’ supporters have tried to frame the debate as pitting academic freedom — the ability to teach criticism of evolution — against evolutionary dogma that promotes atheism. They also have chastised the four moderate board members for not attending public hearings on how evolution is taught.

“I think it will be an important issue,” said John Calvert, a retired Lake Quivira attorney who helped found the Intelligent Design Network. “I think there will be voters who wonder why four board members have their heads stuck in the sand.”

Science standards

By August, the board expects to consider proposed changes in standards that determine how fourth, seventh-and 10th-graders are tested statewide in science. The tests are used to measure how well schools are performing academically; local school boards won’t be required to change how they teach evolution.

Many state university scientists and science teachers want to update the standards but continue treating evolution as a key concept for students to learn and as mainstream science.

Intelligent design advocates want to expose students to more criticism of evolution and teach them that there’s a robust debate over its central tenets.

With its conservative majority, the board is expected to adopt at least some of the language favored by intelligent design advocates.

The real issue

It’s not hard to zero in on the real issue: evolutionary theory suggesting building blocks of life may have arisen naturally from inert chemicals, a common origin for all life and a common ancestor for man and apes.

To critics that means no special creations for different species, not even man, not neutrality in the debate over whether there is a God.

Intelligent design says some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause because there’s well ordered and complex. Critics, of course, scoff that its advocates won’t cop to the designer being God so they can’t be accused of trying to cram fundamentalist religion into science classes.

Debate history

In 1999, the board, revising the science standards, struck most references to evolution. Conservatives argued they were leaving decisions about how the theory is taught to local boards of education, but they and their allies were the only ones who saw the decision that way. Around the world, people saw an attack on evolution.

Board members who supported those standards found themselves ridiculed.

In 2000, moderates regained control of the board and quickly revised the standards again.

But conservatives regained ground over the next two election cycles. After 2002, the board was split 5-5. Moderates pushed for a full review of science standards — reopening the evolution debate — only to see their efforts boomerang when Kathy Martin, a conservative from Clay Center, unseated a less conservative incumbent.

Now, Kansas Citizens for Science promises to keep the evolution debate before voters, so they see adoption of language favored by intelligent design advocates as a conservative religious attack on mainstream science.