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Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as Lawmakers Seek To Abolish Disdained Kansas Board

Lawmakers Seek To Abolish Disdained Kansas Board

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The Kansas state board of education is making headlines again, but this time for its possible extinction rather than its policy on the teaching of evolution.

A small, bipartisan group of legislators led by Speaker of the House Robin L. Jennison has proposed eliminating the board, which has the authority to set education policy for the state and to appoint the education commissioner. Mr. Jennison's plan calls for replacing the 10-member panel with a Cabinet-level education secretary appointed by the governor. A bill is expected to be introduced in the House by the end of next week.

"Education is the biggest budget item we have in Kansas, and the most important issue for our state," Mr. Jennison, a Republican, said. "For education not to have a seat on the governor's Cabinet just doesn't make sense."

The lawmaker said his push for the state board's elimination was not sparked by that panel's decision in August to introduce new science-curriculum standards that virtually eliminate any mention of evolution theory. But he's counting on that decision—which drew scornful reaction nationwide—to make all the difference for a legislative proposal that surfaced in years past, but failed to gain momentum. ("Kansas Evolution Controversy Gives Rise to National Debate," Sept. 8, 1999.)

"Before the summer, people didn't think the state board was as political as the legislature, and people didn't think education should be political," Mr. Jennison said. "I think the state board has shown itself to be every bit as political as the legislature."

The Better Advocate?

Senate President Richard L. Bond also likes the idea of abolishing the board and perhaps replacing it with a panel that would advise the governor's education secretary. But he does not share Mr. Jennison's confidence that it will actually happen.

"The practical politics of this are, we're not going to abolish the state board because the votes aren't there," Mr. Bond, who is also a Republican, said. "The far right likes the board, and they like the evolution rules. The Democrats don't want it to go away because they want to be able to make the charge that all Republicans are extremists. So that leaves just us dummies in the center, the moderates, who want to change things."

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said his interest in keeping the state board has nothing to do with inducing political fallout for Republicans. While the Democrat said he might support making the commissioner a Cabinet member, he insisted that the board is a far better public education advocate than the legislature.

"If you compare what we have done to fund education to what [the board] has recommended, we've fallen down on the job," Mr. Hensley said.

Recognition of Power

Eliminating the board would require changing the state constitution, which takes a two-thirds vote by the legislature to put such a proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot. But if the effort succeeded, Kansas would join Wisconsin and Minnesota as one of the few states to throw over their boards of education.

It is a prospect some find troubling.

"Over the past 20 years or so, as states have stepped up their education activities, there is a new awareness of the role state boards play," said David A. Griffith, the director of government and public affairs for the National Association of State Boards of Education. "Only recently have people started recognizing the power of state boards, and some people want to have that power."

But the threat of abolition appears to have caused nary a stir among board members. "This has been tried the last three years and it's always failed," said Harold L. Voth, the school board chairman. "Most people would like to have 10 people have input than one."

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Page 21

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