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Archive for Sunday, October 9, 2005

Votes are the key

It starts at the ballot box. For better or worse, the votes of Kansans have given the the Kansas State Board of Education the votes to set school policy for the state.

October 9, 2005

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This is not the first time this topic has been addressed in this column and it probably won't be the last because Kansas voters seem to have short memories when it comes to recognizing the importance of casting informed votes in races for the Kansas State Board of Education.

Kansans who are dismayed by actions now being taken by the board - the hiring of an education commissioner with no education experience, the debate over teaching standards for science in Kansas schools and measures that could reduce the number of Kansas students taking sex education classes - need to understand that those actions all have their roots in the ballot box. Members of the state school board have the power to take all of these actions; Kansans have the power to choose who represents them on that board.

Following the state board's first foray into the evolution/creation issue a number of years ago, Kansas voters elected some new board members, creating a more moderate majority on this important state body. But two years later, with everything back to the status quo, voters apparently dozed again and allowed the board to swing back toward control by conservative members. The 2004 election completed that swing by adding a sixth member to the board's conservative block, a majority on the 10-member board.

A look at the Kansas Secretary of State's voting records raises some interesting points about these elections.

One is the importance of primary elections, something that's lost on many Kansas voters. In 2002, two of the leading conservatives on the current board, Connie Morris and Iris Van Meter, defeated incumbent board members in their Republican primaries. Those two primary races, as well as the Republican primary won by conservative incumbent John Bacon, all were decided by fewer than 5,700 votes. That's less than 1 percent of the registered Republicans in the state that year and less than 0.5 percent of all Kansas voters.

All three of those candidates ran unopposed in the general election, although write-in campaigns were launched on behalf of the two incumbents defeated by Morris and Van Meter. Only one of the five seats filled in November 2002 had both a Republican and Democratic candidate on the ballot. After the election, the state school board had a 5-5 split between people identified as moderate and conservative.

Fast forward to 2004. Two current board members, Sue Gamble and Carol Rupe, were elected without opposition in either the primary or general election. Two others, Kathy Martin and Steve Abrams, faced opposition in their Republican primaries - which they won by about 61 percent and 53 percent, respectively - and were unopposed in the general. Only Democrat Bill Wagnon had an opponent in the general election.

After the 2004 election, with the addition of Martin, the board arrived at its current 6-4, conservative-moderate split.

These people were all duly elected by Kansas voters. Perhaps a majority of Kansas voters support their board members and the actions they now are taking, but opinions being registered across the state seem to indicate otherwise.

The current actions of the board certainly may revive talk of making the state school board an appointed rather than an elected body, similar to the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees higher education in the state. The strongest argument against such a move is that Kansas voters should have a direct voice in who sets policy for their public K-12 schools. That populist notion has a lot of appeal, but it only works if voters not only make sure they educate themselves about the important issues facing the board but also make sure that someone who shares their views is on the ballot.

It may seem like a long way off, but voters again will have a chance to voice their opinion on five school board seats in November 2006. It's not too soon to starting thinking - and sharing those thoughts with friends across the state - about exactly what kind of representatives Kansas needs in charge of its public schools.

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