Conservative Slate Angles for Kan. State Board Seats

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To hear some Kansans tell it, the upcoming state school board election is a referendum on a conservative agenda.

The intensely contested race for five of the board's 10 seats pits five Republican candidates against four Democrats and one independent.

As it happens, the GOP candidates have all been endorsed by a grass-roots conservative organization known as the Kansas Education Watch Network, or KEW-NET, which advocates a back-to-basics curriculum as well as more local control and parental rights. In the meantime, each of their respective opponents has won the support of the Kansas NEA, which supports the state's current school-improvement plan.

Each side is working hard to portray the other's candidates as extremists. Yet, as some educators across the state express the fear that a victory by the Republican slate could put a decisively conservative spin on education policy, the GOP candidates deny any sort of orchestrated strategy.

"First of all, I never knew who KEW-NET was until the paper accused me of being with these people, so I had to call them and request a position paper," said Rene Armbruster, the Republican candidate from the district that includes Topeka.

But Harold R. Hosey, a self-described moderate Republican incumbent whom Ms. Armbruster defeated in the primary, had a different perspective. "I was kind of targeted to be eliminated," said Mr. Hosey, who is now serving as the interim superintendent of the Dodge City schools. "She and the others will destroy what had been five good years of progress in the Kansas public education system."

Tipping the Balance

Twelve states around the country have at least some of their state school board members chosen by voters. Over the past two years, Republican victories in state board elections have given a conservative edge to the state boards in Michigan and Alabama. Observers say that this year they are watching nonpartisan races for board seats in Nebraska and Ohio, as well as partisan races in Michigan, Texas, and, of course, Kansas.

The Kansas election is so critical, Democrats and some moderate Republicans argue, because a slate of conservative candidates could politicize what had previously been a bipartisan board.

"We run on partisan tickets but we have always [operated] in the past on a nonpartisan basis," said Mike D. Gragert, an incumbent Democrat from Wichita.

"The Democrats and the Republican moderates voted together on about all the issues," Mr. Hosey agreed. Because there were two board members who represented the more conservative viewpoint, he said, many votes were divided 8-2.

Craig Grant, the director of political action for the Kansas NEA, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, noted that the one sitting member who tended to vote conservatively could potentially help create a six-person majority after this election. "If all five of these KEW-NET-supported candidates would win, it could tip the balance to a much more conservative leaning," he said.

But Jim McDavitt, the executive director of the Wichita-based KEW-NET, said it was unfair to portray the Republican candidates as anything other than individuals. "My issues in deciding to endorse a candidate are, 'Will they accept the challenge of academics?' and 'Will they unwaveringly demand accountability?' The other issues are side issues," he said. "I'd like to see [the media] quit saying that somehow a KEW-NET endorsement is more sinister or more ominous than an NEA endorsement, particularly when the NEA is so nefarious in its agenda."

Gerald Henderson, the executive director of the United School Administrators of Kansas, said it was hard to assess the ramifications of an across-the-board Republican victory, although he said that one of his colleagues had less concern after meeting the candidates in person.

Still, he said, "there are people within those districts that say, 'Hey don't let that fool you--these folks are scary.'"

On the Right Track?

One recurring theme in the individual races is the Republicans' assessment that student performance is in decline and more local control is needed.

"Basically, all these candidates sing from the same songbook, which is that our schools are bad and getting worse," said Bill Wagnon, the Democratic candidate running against Ms. Armbruster. Mr. Wagnon, a history professor at Washburn University in Topeka, gives high marks to the state's much-touted Quality Performance Accreditation system to evaluate school progress.

But Ms. Armbruster said that on the campaign trail she hears from employers who complain that graduates can't read or write, and from teachers who are drowning in QPA paperwork requirements.

It's not the fault of the teachers, she said, "just the big bureaucracy."

Vol. 16, Issue 09

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