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Archive for Monday, September 20, 2010

Money becomes new focus of Kansas State Board of Ed races

September 20, 2010

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— Campaigns for the State Board of Education that previously were as much about what Kansas students are taught might be more about how those courses are paid for this year.

No longer is the debate dominated by science standards and subtle references to evolution, intelligent design or “The Flying Spaghetti Monster” who controls the universe.

Candidates challenging for seats on the November ballot say the issue is how districts spend their money and the role the 10-member state board plays in directing resources.

Five seats are on the ballot, with three Republican incumbents unopposed. Getting through are John Bacon of Olathe in the 3rd District, Sally Cauble of Liberal in the 5th District and Ken Willard of Hutchinson in the 7th District.

Democrat Janet Waugh, chairwoman of the board from Kansas City in the 1st District, and Republican Jana Shaver of Independence in the 9th District, each face opposition.

The remaining five board members will face re-election in 2012.

Waugh faces Bonner Spring Republican Willie Dove, who has previously run for the Kansas House, while Shaver faces Democrat Robert Medford of Pittsburg.

Medford is concerned the board is not paying enough attention to how the state’s 293 districts are spending taxpayer dollars. While setting curriculum standards is important, he doesn’t think it should be the sole focus.

“If they can impose their professional will as a state board on the particular districts on those issues, why not other issues,” Medford said. “In my opinion, they have abdicated their responsibility.”

Local vs. state control

The board’s stated goals for 2009 through 2011 are aimed at student achievement, focusing on leadership in each school building, strong teachers in the classroom and coordinating learning with parents, educators and other interested parties.

Nowhere, however, do the goals mention school funding or making certain that districts are being efficient with state and local revenues. Kansas spends more than $3 billion education, the largest segment of the state’s general fund budget. As some politicians have stated, education is to Kansas what the Department of Defense is to the nation, it’s the No. 1 priority.

Medford believes the board can do better. He also thinks the board should step in and curb districts that divert money to other accounts that should go to the classroom, such as money socked away for capital improvements. He said some estimates are that districts are sitting on more than $440 million in this fund alone, “in case a boiler breaks.”

“Half a billion dollars is going to buy a lot of boilers. All of those excuses are smoke screen. The reality is they are carrying over cold hard cash,” he said.

Shaver, a former teacher from Independence, said districts are being asked to do more with less after funding was cut by the Legislature. Those reductions come as districts face tougher demands for student achievement.

However, she doesn’t think it’s the board’s place to tell districts where to spend their money.

“We are a local control state. That’s something we have supported,” Shaver said. “Every district is different. They know their needs, their community. They are best qualified to make decisions on spending.”

Medford said districts may need additional money from the state in the future when the economy improves, especially as demands for student achievement increase. But until then, the state board should speak up.

Shaver and Waugh disagree, saying local boards were doing a good job managing their resources and finding efficiencies.

“I don’t know that it’s an issue that we need to address,” Waugh said. “We don’t do funding. We just distribute the money. I oppose mandating that and local boards need a lot of leeway in what they do.”

Evolution issue quiet

In elections over the past decade, evolution became a key issue in Board of Education races. The board revised standards for testing students’ knowledge of science four times from 1999 to 2007.

A conservative majority adopted standards in 1999 that deleted most references to evolution; in 2001, a new majority revised the standards so they treated evolution as a key scientific concept.

In 2005, a new conservative majority adopted standards incorporating language reflecting skepticism of evolution, sought by intelligent design advocates. In 2007, a new majority returned the state to evolution-friendly standards.

The 2005 round of changes inspired an Oregon physics graduate’s satire, demanding time in Kansas classrooms for a theory that a pasta-based god created the universe with his “noodly appendage.” A site for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster still can be found online.

The board will next review and revise the standards in 2014. Shaver, Waugh and Cauble are part of the bloc that support the current standards. Medford said evolution should be taught in science classes, but any comparative study would be best for a “Philosophy 101 at the senior level.”

But Waugh said the debate could be muted, if it takes place at all. States are adopting a national common core of education standards which will be the basis for testing. States will have little latitude in deviating from the new standards. The Kansas board will vote on the standards for reading and math in October.

“We don’t need to fight that fight again,” Waugh said.

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