Analysis: Board’s actions show majority question educators’ attitude

Not all Kansans dismissive of conservatives' pursuits

? The dust storm around the State Board of Education these days isn’t really about evolution, sex education, a top administrator’s credentials, the books assigned in classes or school vouchers.

It’s about trust, or a lack of it.

It’s about Kansans who talk of “government schools” or worry over what an “education industry” is doing with their children, eight hours a day, five days a week.

Those Kansans now have a sympathetic majority on the board setting policy and running a department that consumes more than half the state’s general tax revenues.

A $3 billion-plus enterprise is in the hands of people who question whether educators pay enough attention to parents.

Many superintendents, principals and teachers could face a winter of discontent, but some Kansans who feel they’ve been treated like outsiders are satisfied.

“I’m thankful that we have school board members who respect the value of parental involvement and input,” said Renee Herman, an Overland Park parent who pulled her two children out of Blue Valley schools amid an ongoing dispute over books on student reading lists.

Others see a board controlled by amateurs whose political ideology causes them to reject the advice of seasoned educators, scientists or public health advocates.

“It’s all about undermining professionalism,” said board member Bill Wagnon, a Topeka Democrat who’s on the short end of the board’s 6-4 philosophical split. “It’s all about attacking expertise. It’s medieval.”

Contentious issues

For months, the board has been a headline-generating engine.

Its evolution debate garnered international attention. This month, the board adopted new science standards that treat evolution as a flawed theory – defying the view of national science groups.

Another fight involves a proposal to require school districts to get a parent or guardian’s written permission before enrolling a student in sex education courses. Most districts now assume a student will be enrolled unless a parent objects in writing.

Last month, the board voted 6-4 to hire Bob Corkins as education commissioner, although he’s never had any experience as a teacher or school administrator.

Beyond that, Corkins lobbied legislators against large increases in education spending and is an advocate for school vouchers and other measures designed to spur competition against public schools.

Then there’s board Chairman Steve Abrams’ foray into the Blue Valley book battle. In a widely distributed column, he was trying to make a larger point about parents not having enough control, but he said some schools were “promulgating pornography” as literature in their classes.

Hundreds of Blue Valley parents have signed petitions objecting to books on the reading list containing obscene or vulgar language or sexually explicit material, including “Black Boy,” by Richard Wright, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey.

“The real tragedy in all of this brouhaha at the State Board of Education is that very little of it has to do with providing a world-class education for our children,” said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.

He added: “The Chinese, the Indians, the Koreans and the Japanese are spending their energy teaching their kids math, science, geography and things that make their kids competitive.”

Educators don’t like being painted as unresponsive and note local school boards are elected, just as state board members are. If hundreds of Blue Valley parents object to certain books, hundreds more have voted to retain board incumbents.

“Most school board members are parents of kids in school,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “They are accountable in coffee shops on Main Street. They are accountable in church on Sunday. They are accountable at the Rotary Club.”

Not conservative enough?

Some Kansans still don’t feel well-represented.

They see an education system dominated by liberal teachers unions and administrators.

The Rev. Terry Fox, pastor of Wichita’s Immanuel Baptist Church, said perhaps half of its 6,600 members appear to have given up on public schools. The other half, he said, want to fight for more influence.

“I think public education has really become a brainwashing from the far left,” Fox said. “These superintendents better realize that they don’t just work for the liberals. I think sometimes they’ve gotten the impression that they own the schools.”

Herman said she spent hours volunteering at her children’s schools but didn’t feel there was a “give-and-take” when it came to their education.

“I believe in public education,” she said. “At some point, I want to see the same respect I give the teachers.”

There are a few ideas about why conservative Republicans control the board.

Conservatives tend to dominate GOP primaries.

Too many Kansans, particularly moderate Republicans, were sleeping in recent board elections.

Some say conservatives hide their true intent. They’re reflecting the sentiments of more people than their critics acknowledge.

What’s clear is that Kansans like Fox and Herman now have the board’s ear.