Kansas voters on Tuesday elected four new members and re-elected one to the 10-member State Board of Education, the body that supervises all public K-12 education in the state.
That’s a high turnover percentage in almost any year, but it’s especially high considering the large number of weighty issues the board will deal with just in the next 12 to 14 months — issues that range from adopting new science and social studies standards to establishing new policies that hold teachers and administrators accountable for student performance and implementing a new federal waiver from No Child Left Behind.
“They’re just huge issues,” said Jim McNiece, the newly elected member from the 10th District in Wichita. “I don’t want to say I’m fearful or apprehensive. Those aren’t the right words. But I’d say I’m profoundly aware of the significance of the decisions we’re about to make as a board.”
All of the new board members have professional education experience, either as teachers, administrators or both. But they also bring with them varied views about the issues confronting the state board and the board’s role in setting state education policy.
All four of the new board members are Republicans. Three of them describe themselves as “social moderates” in terms of education issues. That means, among other things, they support the teaching of evolution in science classes and emphasizing evolution as a fundamental principle in the state science curriculum.
McNiece ran unopposed in both the primary and general election.
He spent much of his career as a school principal in a variety of settings Kansas and Nebraska. His last four years were at Wichita Northwest High School, an ethnically diverse building with about 1,300 students. He has also been principal at Bishop Carroll High School and Northeast Magnet High School, both in Wichita, as well as smaller high schools in Kansas and Nebraska.
McNiece said he supported the current board’s effort to obtain a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind. That waiver means schools and districts are no longer required to meet yearly benchmarks, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, for the number of students who score proficient or better in reading and math.
Instead, schools will be graded across four measures of success. Using the same reading and math tests, they’ll be graded based on yearly improvement in their overall achievement level; their success in moving students into higher achievement levels; narrowing the gap between the top-performing and bottom-performing students; and reducing the number of students who score below proficiency.
One of the conditions for receiving that waiver, however, was that the state had to promise to adopt a new method of evaluating teachers and principals by tying evaluations to student achievement. That new evaluation protocol is still being developed and is expected to be put in place in the 2014-15 school year.
“I’m curious and excited to find out if someone can in fact come up with a system that will do that,” McNiece said, noting that he spent more than 30 years conducting teacher evaluations. “As long as they’re reasonable for teachers, and it gives us good information about students. It’ll be exciting if someone can come up with a system and solve that problem.”
Deena Horst, a newly elected board member from Salina, also describes herself as a social moderate on education issues, including the teaching of evolution. But she said she hopes to bridge the divide between moderates and conservatives.
“I also respect the concerns that some of the more conservative individuals have too,” Horst said. I’m also a person who isn’t dogmatic in my beliefs. If we can find some meeting ground in between, that would be helpful.”
Horst said adoption of the new Next Generation Science Standards will be one of the biggest issues the board deals with next year, but she thinks the debate over science will go more smoothly than it has in the past.
“I’m not sure it will be as controversial as so many years ago,” she said. “Hopefully we can find a middle ground.”
Horst spent most of her career as an art teacher in the Salina school district, mainly at the middle school and high school levels. She also served 16 years in the Kansas House of Representatives before retiring in 2010.
Horst said one of the things she hopes to accomplish is improving the level of communication between the state board, a regulatory and policymaking body, and the Kansas Legislature, which is responsible for funding education.
“As a former legislator, I never can remember having a board member come and talk to me about what they believe,” Horst said. “And maybe at that point there weren’t things that needed to be done statutorily by the Legislature, but certainly funding has been an issue every year. My thought is we as board members actually serve the same people as four senators do. And we should be in contact with at least those four individuals and trying to become more of a team.”
Each State Board of Education district comprises four state Senate districts.
Horst will succeed Kathy Martin in the 6th District seat that covers much of north-central and northeast Kansas. Martin, who chose not to run this year, had been one of the conservatives on the board who supported downplaying the teaching of evolution in science classes.
Kathy Busch of Wichita ran unopposed in the general election after unseating incumbent board member Walt Chappell in the GOP primary in August.
Chappell was elected in 2008 as a Democrat but later switched his party affiliation to Republican. Although a moderate on most social issues that came before the board, including evolution, he was an outspoken critic of many other board policies and often aligned himself with conservative groups like the Kansas Policy Institute on issues like school finance.
Busch, a retired administrator from the Wichita school district, describes herself as a moderate on social issues and said she supports adopting the proposed Next Generation Science Standards.
“I am familiar with the Next Generation Science Standards and I am supportive of adopting those,” she said.
Busch also said the state needs to be cautious about tying teacher evaluations to student performance.
“The thing that I think, if we go forward, is that it needs to be tied with student growth, and not just a point in time” she said. “No Child Left Behind, it was tied to everybody taking a test on this day, and it was just based on whether or not you meet a proficiency level. I am much more supportive of looking at whether the students are growing, from where they are to what would be an appropriate amount of growth at an appropriate period in time.”
Busch also said she is willing to consider moving away from Quality Performance Accreditation to any new system of accrediting schools.
“I think certainly looking at something that’s showing growth might be a good way,” she said. “And I also look at how we’re preparing (students). It’s the college- and career-readiness piece. Even though I spent a lot of time working with middle school, I always like to think, are we preparing kids in middle school for high school? Are we preparing kids at elementary school for middle school? And the cumulative effect is, are we preparing high school kids to be college- and career-ready?”
Steve Roberts, the newly elected member from Overland Park, may be the least well known addition to the state board.
He was elected over Democrat Cindy Neighbor, a former state legislator, in a close race in the 2nd District. He will succeed Democrat Sue Storm whose residence was shifted out of the district through court-ordered reapportionment.
Roberts is a self-employed math tutor with his own company, Mr. X, Mentor of Mathematics. He said he is certified in both Kansas and Missouri to teach secondary math, physics and earth and space science. He said he is also certified in Arizona to teach secondary math.
When asked where he places himself on the moderate-to-conservative spectrum, he replied: “I don’t.”
“I do wear the label of conservative, but it’s pretty basic for me,” Roberts said. “I don’t try to position myself on some sort of spectrum. I just adhere to principles.”
Asked further whether he supports adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, he responded by talking about the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and math, and adding that he doesn’t believe standards themselves are important.
“There is some good language in the Common Core standards but my position is that the focus needs to be on getting great teachers,” Roberts said. “If a really great teacher wants to adhere closely with Common Core standards, that’s fine. If a really great teacher wants to adhere to them loosely, that’s fine. And if a really great teacher wants to essentially ignore them, that’s fine. Because it has to do with getting really great teachers into our classrooms.”
When asked specifically whether evolution should be included in state science standards, Roberts again sidestepped the subject.
“I go back to having great teachers in the classroom,” he said. “If you have a really great teacher, the standards can be adhered to strictly or less strictly. It has to do with having great teachers. It’s far more important than having great standards. If we get great teachers, it tends to work out regardless of the standards.”
Roberts said the best way to identify great teachers is to improve the teacher evaluation system, and he indicated support for moving to a system of merit pay. But he did not speak directly to the issue of tying teacher evaluations to student performance.
“As a teacher, I’m certainly not opposed to higher teacher pay, but we certainly can’t raise it across the board,” Roberts said. “What I would suggest is a move toward checks and balances. In other words, we need a variety of things that go into the mix of evaluating our teachers. But the very idea that you can look up a teacher’s salary on a pay chart akin to a post office clerk is really antithetical to good sense.”
The only member of the State Board of Education who was up for election this year and retained her seat was Carolyn Campbell, a Democrat from the 4th District, which includes Lawrence and Topeka.
Campbell has been a social moderate on the board, supporting science standards that emphasize evolution and supporting efforts to obtain the federal waiver from No Child Left Behind.
Campbell has said her top priority going into a second term is to address the achievement gap between disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged students.
The five board members will be sworn into office at the board’s monthly meeting on Jan. 8.