Archive for Sunday, August 13, 2006

Back on track

The philosophical roller coaster being driven by the Kansas Department of Education provides a bumpy ride for local school districts.

August 13, 2006


Judging by the results of the Aug. 1 primary election, many Kansans think it's time for some changes on the Kansas State Board of Education.

In fact, moderate members of the state board already are making plans to review and perhaps overturn many of the actions ratified by the current conservative majority on the board. While gathered Tuesday in Topeka for a board meeting, moderates said they would waste no time in taking action after at least two current board members are replaced by more moderate members in January.

Many Kansans agree that canceling the anti-evolution science standards, revisiting an abstinence-only sex education policy and possibly finding a new education commissioner represent positive changes. But the roller coaster of change on the board and in the education department in recent years has been anything but positive for the state's K-12 schools.

The change the department is likely to experience in January 2007 should trigger a feeling of deja vu for many Kansans. Let's flash back to January 2001, when the state board faced an almost identical situation. New moderate board members were taking office and promising to overturn the anti-evolution science standards approved in 1999.

The board took that action and moved back in the education mainstream for the next two years. In 2002, however, new conservative members were elected, resulting in a 5-5 moderate-conservative split on the board that stymied action on many important issues for two years. When conservatives gained a sixth vote in the 2004 election, things began to happen. Science standards that criticized evolution were passed again, a new education commissioner with no professional education experience was hired, and other questionable items undertaken.

Voters in the Aug. 1 primary election picked moderate replacements for two conservative board members, apparently setting up at least a 6-4 majority for the moderates starting in January. What impact does all this activity have on local school districts?

One interesting impact is the number of districts that have continued to conduct business as usual while paying minimal attention to the state board and commissioner. In Lawrence, for instance, there were no plans to eliminate evolution from the curriculum or change the policy of offering sex education to all students who didn't specifically opt out of the classes.

The approach taken here and in other districts was not unreasonable. Officials could see the political winds were shifting, and there was no reason to make wholesale changes when it seemed likely there would be a new set of priorities after the next elections.

The unsettled atmosphere at the state level also is unsettling for local districts, which undoubtedly have lost considerable faith in their state leadership in recent years. A state board that should be fully focused on providing Kansas youngsters the best possible education has been derailed by members with political goals and social agendas. It would be a great gift to Kansas schools if voters and state school board members can get the state's education department back on a more consistent, professional and constructive track.


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