Opinion: Here’s how two down-ballot races will shift the Kansas education agenda

Voters in Northeast Kansas will soon decide the shape of the Kansas State Board of Education for the next two years. Candidates chosen by statewide primaries in August have set the stage for a general election that may alter the way the Kansas State Department of Education has operated for, at least, the past 10 years and may impact all Kansas schools.

The current board consists of four Democrats and six Republicans, but the atmosphere on the board has been bipartisan. Members’ party affiliations are not listed on the board’s Website. Meetings are facilitated by a KSDE civilian workforce.

Ten districts make up the KSDE board with five members elected every two years for four-year terms. Of the five open seats (Districts 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9) redistricting after the 2020 census, left Democrat Janet Waugh without a district to represent and out of the race for District 1, while Republican incumbent Michelle Dombrosky in District 3 did not draw an opponent.

The August primary then became a battle among Republican candidates. One moderate Republican and two conservatives emerged winners.

In District 5, Republican incumbent Jean Clifford lost to Cathy Hopkins of Hays. Hopkins told the Fort Hays State Tiger Media Network, “We need engaged citizens. This top-down approach has been ongoing for a long time and many believe a shift must occur to see real change.” Hopkins will run unopposed, having no Democrat opponent in the November election.

In District 7, Republican incumbent Ben Jones lost to conservative Dennis Hershberger. Hershberber’s Website says he believes getting back to basics will help every child achieve. Hershberger has no Democrat opponent and will run unopposed in the November election.

In District 9, incumbent and board chair, Jim Porter of Fredonia, has spent more than 47 years in education serving as a superintendent for 34 years. Porter beat conservative Luke Aichele and has no Democrat opponent in the upcoming election.

Therefore the three Republican primary winners are presumptive election winners.

Two board seats remain contested. In District 3, conservative Republican Dombrosky will face Democrat Sheila Albers, a retired educator from Overland Park.

In District 1, Democrat Jeffrey Howards, a Marine veteran and 20-year civilian military educator, will face conservative Republican Danny Zeck, who operated a Ford dealership for 30 years. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported recently that Zeck asked the Leavenworth Board of Education to ban a novel about gender and sexuality.

Since KSDE determines policies that carry out state education laws, the outcome of the November election will impact each school in the state.

If both Democrats win their elections the board will be balanced with five Democrats and five Republicans, and it’s possible that the board’s former bipartisan decision-making will continue. If only one Democrat or no Democrat wins, the board will be divided with new members bringing a broad conservative agenda to the table.

No one can predict the election outcome or the impact of this election on board policies, but it seems likely the result may be more of an earthquake than a tremor.

Voters in Districts 1 and 3 should consider the state board election as important as the governor’s race this Nov. 8. Moreover, all Kansans should be concerned because a lot is riding on this election for students and teachers.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio id dean emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.


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