The Kansas state board of education, which as recently as December was politically fractured and riven by interpersonal tension, appears to be moving in a more civil—if not entirely bipartisan—direction under its new, moderate majority.
The 10-member panel has often been in the media spotlight. In 2005, under the previous conservative majority, it adopted science standards that described parts of the theory of evolution as “controversial” and cast doubt on the widely accepted theory, angering scientists.
The decision led to a backlash by voters who, in last year’s elections, ousted one incumbent and elected two moderates to the board, giving them a narrow, 6-4 majority. (“Kansas Board Primaries Seen as Win for Moderates,” Aug. 9, 2006.)
Since then, the panel has repealed the controversial science standard, made changes in the state’s sex education policy, and appointed a new state schools commissioner—all without the controversy and bickering that had brought embarrassing national attention. (“Kansas Board Names New Commissioner,” May 16, 2007.)
“The divisive issues that polarized the board have been taken care of,” said board Chairman Bill Wagnon, one of the moderates, adding that the board now can focus on other issues facing Kansas education.
His view is shared by some on the other side of the political divide. Conservative member Kathy Martin said she was “saddened” by the recent decisions on science and sex education, but is excited to move forward in other ways. In particular, she was pleased with the selection of Alexa E. Posny, a high-ranking U.S. Department of Education official, as the state’s new education commissioner.
“[Ms. Posny] is willing to make tough choices and changes,” Ms. Martin said. “She has promised to work around a consensus and help us all come to some agreements.”
A longtime favorite of the board’s moderate faction, Ms. Posny, currently the director of the federal Education Department’s office of special education programs, was passed over two years ago for the position by the then-conservative-led board.
Although the board has smoothed over some issues, Ms. Posny is prepared for dissent within the panel.
“I anticipate different points of view,” she said. But she feels qualified to handle the board’s political differences, saying that, in her current job, she often negotiates among the 50 states on how education goals should be met.
The main focus of the board will be on “ensuring the success of all students,” said Ms. Posny, a view both conservatives and moderates share. What is trickier to agree on, she said, is “how that may be accomplished.”
One pressing issue, in the view of members on both sides, is Kansas’ growing teacher shortage. Ms. Martin said she suspects that the issue may be more about teacher distribution than a genuine shortage of teachers. She said that setting up incentives to draw teachers to high-need areas, mostly in rural districts, could be one solution.
“Money is less of a pressing issue,” Mr. Wagnon said, since Kansas is in its second year of a three-year funding program, which earmarks an already-established amount of education funding at the start of each legislative session.
The new board has not shied away from tackling some contentious issues, the sex education policy being the most recent.
Earlier this month, the moderate majority replaced a strict abstinence-until-marriage policy that had been pushed by conservatives with an “abstinence-plus” program. That policy also emphasizes premarital abstinence, but also gives students information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases.
The new policy also lets school districts decide whether parental permission is necessary for students to enroll in human-sexuality classes.
But the policy change was accomplished with a minimum of tension, and members say the board now can focus on other needs, such as how to prepare its students for jobs in today’s global economy.
“We need to move to the next level,” said moderate board member Janet Waugh. “We need to decide what a 21st-century education is, and move forward in providing that to our students.”
The panel will be holding a retreat to evaluate its goals and identify challenges once Ms. Posny begins her job on July 2.
“I am really excited,” said Ms. Waugh. “We’re ready to put the divisive issues behind us and do what we’re elected to do—provide the very best education for students in Kansas.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2007 edition of Education Week as New Spirit of Civility, Cooperation Evident With Kansas School Board