State BOE race slips below radar

Science standards depend on new group's makeup

State Board of Education races at a glance

¢ District 2, based in Johnson County. Republican Mary Ralstin faces Democrat Sue Storm. Both are considered moderates. Current officeholder is Sue Gamble, a Republican moderate, who is not seeking re-election.

¢ District 4, which includes most of Lawrence. Democrat Carolyn Campbell faces Republican Robert Meissner. Current officeholder is Bill Wagnon, a Democratic moderate, who is not seeking re-election.

¢ District 6, which includes northern Kansas. Republican Kathy Martin, who is a conservative, faces Democrat Christopher Renner, a moderate. Martin is the incumbent.

¢ District 8, which includes Wichita. Democrat Walt Chappell, a moderate, faces Republican Dennis Hedke, a conservative. Current officeholder is Carol Rupe, a moderate Republican.

¢ District 10, which includes south-central Kansas. Republican David Dennis faces Democrat Paul Casanova. Both are considered moderates. Current officeholder is conservative Republican Steve Abrams, who did not seek re-election.

Way below the noise of a historic presidential campaign and an epic economic meltdown are the low-key battles between moderate and conservative candidates vying for the Kansas State Board of Education.

Five positions on the 10-member board are up for grabs, and the results of those elections will decide whether moderates maintain their majority, or even increase it – or conservatives gain ground to produce a 5-5 standoff.

Historically, the see-saw battle between moderates and conservatives for control of the board has produced fights over teaching evolution in schools that have attracted international attention.

Currently, the 6-4 moderate majority has established science standards that subscribe to evolution being taught in science classes.

Local face-off

The issue of evolution came up last week during a Lawrence debate in the SBOE, District 4 contest between Republican Robert Meissner and Democrat Carolyn Campbell.

Campbell supports the current science standards.

She said Meissner had a hidden agenda, implying he would be open to allowing the teaching of intelligent design or some other idea about life’s origins in science classes.

Meissner stated: “As far as other theories of origin, the litmus test for me is scientific credibility. When the science community can come to a consensus as to the scientific credibility, then at that point and only that point should we consider including those other theories in our science curriculum.”

Evolutionary history

Steve Case, a Kansas University research professor, has had a front-row seat as the state board has gone back and forth over education and evolution.

In 2005, he was chairman of the science standards-writing committee that favored teaching evolution, but those standards were rejected by the then 6-4 conservative majority on the board, which put in place standards that questioned evolution and were supported by advocates of intelligent design.

The 2006 election put moderates back in control, and they quickly put in the evolution-friendly standards.

Case said it is possible that conservatives could make gains in this election because people have been focused on other issues.

“The economy is dominating the news and people’s thinking these days,” he said. The SBOE races, he said, “have faded to the background. People need to pay attention.”

The political landscape

The 6-4 moderate majority that supports the current science standards, which include evolution, is tenuous.

Of the five positions on the board up for grabs, three are held by moderates and two by conservatives. Of the moderate seats, all three incumbents are not seeking re-election.

Campbell and Meissner are running for a seat currently held by Democrat Bill Wagnon, a moderate. Wagnon defeated Meissner in 2004 in a close election.

In District 8, based in Wichita, Republican Dennis Hedke and Democrat Walt Chappell are running for a seat held by Republican Carol Rupe, who is a moderate.

Chappell supports the present science standards, but Hedke said he is open to considering changes and supports private school vouchers.

On his Web site, Hedke stated: “In the interest of academic integrity, we must remain open to consideration of adjustments of any ‘standards’ we attempt to define at any given moment.”

Hedke has been endorsed by board members Kathy Martin, Kenneth Willard and Steve Abrams, all of whom voted for science standards critical of evolution. And he is endorsed by the conservative Kansas Republican Assembly.

In the District 2 race, which includes Johnson County, both Republican Mary Ralstin and Democrat Sue Storm are considered moderates. They are running for a seat to replace a moderate.

In the District 10 race, Republican David Dennis and Paul Casanova have said they both support the standards. One of them will replace the conservative Abrams, who is running for state Senate.

And in the District 6 race, Republican incumbent Martin, who is critical of evolution, faces moderate Democrat Christopher Renner.

If Meissner and Hedke win and Martin wins re-election, the board would be tied 5-5. If Campbell, Chappell and Renner win, the moderates would have an 8-2 majority.