It’s easy to draw any number of contrasts between Carolyn Campbell and Jack Wu, the two candidates running for the Kansas State Board of Education in District 4.
Campbell, 70, is a Democrat, a lifelong resident of Kansas, and a black woman who attended public schools in Topeka, starting at McKinley Elementary, an all-black elementary school in Topeka in the years before desegregation.
“I’m a product of segregation,” she said.
After graduating from Topeka High School in 1960, she spent a year at a career college, the Clark School of Business, then located in Topeka.
Wu, 29, is a Republican, a native of California, and an Asian-American. He attended the Chinese Christian Schools, a parochial school in San Leandro, Calif. He then went to California State University, East Bay, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science.
Campbell was elected to three terms on the Topeka board of education before running for the state board in 2008.
Wu has never run for public office before.
But the biggest difference between the two is their approach to religion and how their religious beliefs influence their positions on policy issues.
Both consider themselves devout Christians. Campbell, however, says that plays no role in her official actions on the state board.
“I have always separated church and state, in my personal beliefs and what I believe our children should receive as an education,” Campbell said.
Wu is a member of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. Founded by Fred Phelps Sr., that church is known throughout the country and in many parts of the world for its anti-homosexual protests. He says his religious values would play a big role in his decisions if he is elected to the state board.
“Everyone has their religious views,” Wu said. “I don’t believe you have to go to the Westboro Baptist Church to be a good person. But there are some basic things we should teach our kids from the Bible.”
Chief among those, Wu said, are the ideas that God created heaven and Earth in six days, that Adam and Eve were the first humans, and that there is no such thing as evolution.
“There are a lot of concepts like natural selection and adaptation that I do believe,” he said. “But I don’t want to see schools teaching that humans share a common ancestor with apes.”
The teaching of evolution often stirs controversy on the state board when it acts to update the official state science curriculum. That is expected to happen again early in 2013 when the board votes on whether to adopt the new Next Generation Science Standards, a document being prepared by a consortium of states, including Kansas, with leadership from the National Research Council. The current draft of those standards emphasize evolution as one of the unifying, or “cross-cutting,” principles affecting many disciplines of science.
Campbell said she supports the new science standards, as far as she has yet seen, and supports the teaching of evolution in science classes.
Currently, those who support teaching evolution hold a 7-3 majority on the state board, and it is unlikely that the elections in November will reverse that balance. One of the conservatives who opposes evolution, Kathy Martin of Clay Center (District 6), is not seeking re-election and will be replaced by a moderate who does support evolution, either Republican Deena Horst or Democrat Carol Viar.
District 4, which includes most of Lawrence and western Douglas County, is one of two seats in which pro-evolution, moderate incumbents are being challenged by religious conservatives. The other is District 2 in Johnson County, an open seat this year, where Democrat Cindy Neighbor faces conservative Republican Steve Roberts.
Among the other weighty issues facing the next board will be whether to revamp the process Kansas uses to accredit public schools. Establishing those standards and monitoring school performance is one of the key duties of the state board, which is responsible under the Kansas Constitution for “general supervision of public schools, educational institutions and all the educational interests of the state.”
Currently, the state uses the Quality Performance Accreditation model, or QPA, that was first enacted in 1992. That system, which was greatly expanded under the federal No Child Left Behind law in 2001, holds schools accountable for increasing the number of students who score proficient or better on standardized tests in core subjects.
This summer, however, Kansas was granted a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind. Beginning next spring, the state will use a different system that uses multiple measures of how schools are performing. In addition to looking at the number of students above the proficiency benchmark, the new system focuses on the overall growth in scores, the gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students, and reducing the number of students who score below proficiency.
Staff in the Kansas Department of Education are drafting a new accreditation model aligned to that new system of accountability.
Campbell, who vocally supported the department’s efforts to obtain the federal waiver, said she is waiting to see the specific proposal the staff offers before making up her mind.
Wu said in an interview that he was not aware of efforts to revamp the accreditation system. He said he believes the state should be responsible for accrediting schools and should not hand that responsibility over to outside organizations.
Occupation: Self-employed, computer programmer
Marital status: Single
Religious affiliation: Member of the Westboro Baptist Church, Topeka
Education: Chinese Christian Schools (high school), San Leonardo, Calif., 2001; Bachelor of Science in computer science, California State University, East Bay, Hayward, Calif., 2007
Experience: Has not held elected office before
Quote: “There are some basic things we should teach our kids from the Bible.”
Occupation: Administrative assistant for State Sen. Anthony Hensley
Marital status: Divorced
Religion: Member of St. Mark’s AME Church, Topeka
Education: Topeka High School, 1960. Certificate, Clark School of Business, Topeka, 1961
Experience: Three terms on Topeka USD 501 board of education, 1995-2007; State Board of Education, 2009-present
Quote: “I have always separated church and state, in my personal beliefs and what I believe our children should receive as an education.”