Topeka — In 2002, Iris Van Meter ran below the political radar in the Republican Party primary to unseat an incumbent member of the Kansas State Board of Education in southeast Kansas.
She then became a key vote in the 6-4 majority on the state education board that has attacked evolution, changed the availability of sex education and hired a critic of public schools as education commissioner.
While much attention has been placed this year on trying to upset that majority in the upcoming Republican Party primary, a challenge in the Democratic Party primary could thwart those efforts.
Jesse Hall is running in the Aug. 1 Democratic Party primary against incumbent Janet Waugh for the state education board's District 1 seat.
Waugh is a member of the four-vote minority on the board, while Hall's political positions stand firmly with the six-member majority.
Both candidates are from Kansas City, Kan.
The district also extends into eastern Douglas County and northeast Lawrence.
The winner of the Aug. 1 Democratic primary likely will gain a four-year term because there is no Republican candidate or minor party candidate lined up for the November general election.
Waugh said she faces a stealth candidate in Hall, who never has held public office.
Hall hasn't appeared at any candidate forums and is backed by individuals associated with the religious right, Waugh said.
"I have attended quite a few meetings, and I haven't seen him yet," Waugh said.
Celtie Johnson of Overland Park, an evolution opponent, recently circulated a letter urging people to contribute to Hall and other candidates aligned against evolution in the five state education board races.
"If we can win all five seats, creating a 7-3 conservative majority in spite of all the media and academia against us, then the liberals and evolutionists would learn the undeniable message that they can no longer get away with cramming evolutionism down ours and our neighbors kids' throats!" she wrote.
Michael Peterson, chairman of the Wyandotte County Democratic Party, said Hall was being used by the "radical right."
"I assume he is being recruited by outside influences," said Peterson, who is also a state legislator. "For some reason he has affiliated himself with the radical right."
Hall supports majority
But Hall, an employee with the Kansas City, Mo., school district, said he didn't know what all the fuss was about.
He said he grew tired of complaining about the education system and decided to run for office and try to effect change.
He said he supported the science standards adopted by the 6-4 majority that criticize evolution.
"The way it was set up, evolution was the only thing that could be taught. That doesn't allow a child to step outside the box so that they themselves learn how to think," Hall said.
Opponents of the new science standards say they bring intelligent design - the theory that a master designer formed life - into science class.
Hall also supports changes to sex education put in place by the board's 6-4 majority.
Most states and school districts, including Lawrence, have an opt-out policy that allows parents to sign a form if they want their children removed from sex education class. The state education board reversed this process, requiring school districts to receive parental permission for students to remain in sex education classes. This so-called "opt-in" policy means some students won't get the class simply because their parents are inattentive to their school needs, according to health care experts.
Back to basics
Hall said he works with students at risk of failing as a school interventionist and parent liaison for Central Middle School in Kansas City, Mo. Kansas needs to try different ways to reach at-risk students to reduce the dropout rate, he said.
He said schools need to focus on teaching the basics: reading, writing and math.
And while much of the debate on the state education board has revolved around evolution, sex education and the hiring of Bob Corkins as education commissioner, Hall said voters he spoke with want the board to move on to other issues.
Hall said he hadn't attended any political forums yet and mostly had been campaigning door to door.