Kansas City, Kan. A proposal from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to strip the state school board of its power over education policy is an attempted "power grab," the Republican challenging her re-election said Wednesday.
Sebelius, a Democrat seeking a second term this year, said she would make the 10-member elected board advisory and have the governor appoint a secretary to oversee the Department of Education.
Sebelius criticized the board's 6-4 conservative Republican majority. She even suggested to a newspaper's editorial board Tuesday that the board is like the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and his followers' anti-gay picketing in the bad publicity it brings Kansas.
Barnett said while he would support changing the board so that it has an odd number of members - to avoid gridlock - he wouldn't take away its power or abolish it in favor of an appointed board or secretary.
"It's a power grab," Barnett said. "It takes one more part of government away from people who vote."
Sebelius has promised to propose a constitutional amendment on the Board of Education. Under the state constitution, the board's 10 members set education policy and appoint a commissioner to run the Education Department.
Sebelius noted Wednesday that aid to public schools consumes more than half the state's general revenues.
"It makes no sense not to have some closer ties with the Legislature, with policymakers and with the governor's office when we put together a budget," Sebelius told reporters.
Kansas voters approved the current setup as a constitutional amendment in 1966, replacing an elected superintendent of public instruction. Proposed amendments to strip the board of its power or allow for its elimination failed in 1974, 1986 and 1990.
Sebelius' position became an issue during a Wednesday debate sponsored by Kansas City-area chambers of commerce.
Barnett chided Sebelius for the Phelps comparison, saying it was disrespectful.
"I do not support taking away the right to vote from Kansans," Barnett said.
Some of Sebelius' criticism focused on the board's approval last year of science standards seen as anti-evolution. Sebelius said she wasn't comparing school board members to Phelps or his followers.
"What I did do is say, 'Often when I travel around the country, unfortunately, that's what people know about Kansas, and that is not necessarily a great economic development tool,"' Sebelius said.
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Sebelius, like other critics, argue that the board's new science standards damaged the state's reputation and might cause scientists to avoid relocating to Kansas.
Barnett stopped short of endorsing the conservative-led board's science standards but said they allowed for open classroom discussions about evolution.
"The science standards allowed for the opportunity for people, for children across the state, to ask, 'How did we get here?'" he said after the debate. "I essentially support the idea that children should be presented facts, different sides of the issue, and then they can use critical thinking skills and make up their own minds."
Last year, the board rewrote evolution-friendly standards used to develop tests that determine how well students are learning science. The standards say some evolutionary theory is controversial or has been challenged by scientific advances - which doesn't represent mainstream scientific opinion.
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While the new standards contained a disclaimer saying they weren't promoting intelligent design, the text incorporated language from intelligent design promoters. Intelligent design says some features of the universe are so well-ordered and complex that an intelligent cause is the best explanation for it. Many scientists view it as little more than creationism dressed up in scientific-sounding language.
The standards are likely to be rewritten next year, because moderate Republicans won Aug. 1 primaries for two seats held by conservatives.
Sebelius said there are other issues, such as the board's appointment last year of Bob Corkins as education commissioner. Corkins had run two conservative think tanks and had not served as a school administrator or superintendent.
"We have a school board, frankly, in spite of the service of some wonderful people, which is not accountable," Sebelius said.
Barnett replied: "You do have accountability. It's at the ballot box."