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Kan. State Board Primaries Find Republicans Divided

By Jessica L. Tonn — July 21, 2006 7 min read
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Harry E. McDonald III, a Republican candidate for the Kansas state board of education, was campaigning door-to-door here this month when he introduced himself to Ernie Easterly, who was relaxing on the front porch of his house. Mr. Easterly quickly fired the candidate a query: “Are you a conservative?”

That’s a tricky question in historically Republican Kansas, where socially and religiously charged school issues—most notably, the teaching of evolutionary theory and sex education—have caused rifts within the GOP ranks.

The 10-member state board itself has flip-flopped on such matters as control of the panel has shifted back and forth between members labeled conservative and those, including some Republicans, deemed moderates. And with five seats open, next week’s party primaries and this fall’s board elections are again seen as pivotal.

Audio: Voices of Kansas

Harry McDonald III (R), District 3: “Decisions should be made locally and not at the state level. The best decisions for a community are those made by a local school board held accountable by local voters.” Listen to an interview with Harry McDonald III:
2:00 MP3 file: 0.6mb

The fractured nature of the Kansas Republican Party is on display in the primary campaigns for the state board, in which Republicans of all stripes are scrambling to woo voters before they choose their candidates Aug. 1.

The divisions in Kansas may also reflect the dynamics in other state and federal races this year, when the midterm elections may be the most closely fought since a conservative tide brought big GOP gains nationwide in 1994.

As for Mr. McDonald, he told Mr. Easterly, “I’m a traditional Republican.” By that, he explained, he believes in small government and conservative fiscal policies, and that curricular decisions should be made by local school boards.

But the Kansas board candidates—incumbents and newcomers—who are seen as “conservative” Republicans argue that their platforms would provide families with more educational choices through vouchers and charter schools, and state policies meant to give parents more control over what their children are taught.

M. Brad Patzer, a conservative running for the seat that his mother-in-law, Iris Van Meter, is vacating in southeast Kansas, considers his agenda in line with the Kansas GOP platform. What is happening in Kansas, he said, “is a battle over what the Republican Party stands for, their philosophy.”

Jana K. Shaver, a candidate running against Mr. Patzer in the Republican primary, said: “When I became involved in this race, I didn’t realize how political it would become with regard to the Republican Party in Kansas. There are definitely two factions at work.”

Shifts on Evolution

Kansas state school board members are, in fact, usually described as “moderate” or “conservative” rather than by their party affiliations, though Democrats are almost always considered moderate. The current board, by that labeling system, has a conservative majority of six Republicans, and a moderate minority of two Republicans and two Democrats.

Of the five state board seats up for grabs this year, three conservatives and one moderate, a Democrat, are seeking re-election in their districts. One conservative board member is not running for re-election.

Over the past several election cycles, the control of the board has changed twice between conservatives and moderates, mostly because of disagreements over the teaching of evolution.

Sunflower State Primaries

Primaries will be held Aug. 1 in five Kansas electoral districts, shaded in blue, where multiple candidates are seeking their parties’ nomination for the state school board.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Sunflower State Primaries

In 1999, conservatives held the majority and made international headlines by adopting state science standards that de-emphasized the theory of evolution. Two years later, after a voter backlash returned control to the moderates, the board passed standards that included material about the origin of the universe, the development of Earth and life on it, and dinosaurs and their fossils.

“The board has flip-flopped the last two elections over one issue,” Olathe resident Stephen L. Szczygiel said with disgust to Democratic board candidate Don Weiss, who was campaigning there on a hot July afternoon. “There’s a lot more important issues than whether we teach evolution.”

Though most candidates share Mr. Szczygiel’s frustration and would like to address other issues, the present board sparked controversy again last year by holding hearings on the subject and adopting standards recommending that students learn about “scientific criticisms” of evolution and what the document termed “the lack of adequate natural explanations” for certain aspects of evolutionary theory. (“Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

The board also split along conservative and moderate lines when the majority voted last year to hire a state education commissioner with no previous experience working in schools and later adopted an “opt-in” policy for sex education in its model health standards. (“Kansas’ New Schools Chief Sparks Conflict,” Dec. 14, 2005.)

Before the start of a Fourth of July parade in Hutchinson, Donna Viola, a moderate Republican from south-central Kansas, handed one of her campaign fliers to Terry Masterson.

“I have yet to figure out the function of this group other than to talk about sex ed,” Mr. Masterson told her as he took the material.

Ms. Viola replied: “This board is going off in the wrong direction. How about that?”

Defining ‘Traditional’

Across the state, candidates are trying hard to get their messages out. They are meeting with local superintendents of schools and chambers of commerce. They are going to rodeos, parades, and county fairs. They are knocking on doors. And they are planting campaign signs wherever they can.

Ms. Shaver, who considers herself a moderate, says that the key for her in this election “will be to energize the traditional Republicans who want to support a candidate that has traditional values.”

Though politicians across the political spectrum agree that the Kansas Republican Party has been divided for years, many say that a segment of the state’s GOP has become increasingly conservative, further emphasizing the split.

Donna Viola, a Republican candidate for the Kansas board of education, waves to the crowd on Main Street during the Fourth of July parade in Hutchinson, Kan. The party primaries are next week.

Moderate candidates for the state board say that the conservatives are dividing the board with social issues: religion, evolution, sex education, and school bans on books deemed offensive.

They also argue that the majority is taking power away from locally elected school boards by promoting charter schools and a voucher program, and proposing that charter proponents be allowed to appeal to the state board if their applications are denied by their local districts.

Members of the conservative majority, Mr. McDonald said, “think they can do anything they want, and they’re ticking off traditional Republicans.”

But the Kansas Republican Assembly, an organization promoting conservative policies, says on its Web site that it represents “traditional Republican values in Kansas.” The KRA has endorsed all of the conservative candidates in the race.

Many conservatives contend that the party’s moderates are merely RINOs—Republicans In Name Only—who take advantage of the state’s long Republican history for political gain, not out of convictions that clearly set them apart from Democrats.

John W. Bacon, the state board incumbent running against Mr. McDonald in next week’s GOP primary, said of his opponent and the Democratic candidate that “in a debate, you won’t be able to tell them apart.”

The conservative candidates believe their policy ideas empower parents by giving them more choice in where to send their children to school, involving them in the selection of what their children will be taught, and giving charter school organizers an appeals process.

Giving families more control over their children’s education is “maximum freedom,” according to Mr. Patzer.

Not a ‘RINO’

Neither Mr. McDonald, the Republican challenger, nor Mr. Weiss, the Democrat, who is running unopposed and doesn’t have a primary, disputes Mr. Bacon’s contention that they have similar political philosophies.

On the most controversial issues in this year’s elections, Mr. McDonald and Mr. Weiss tend to agree. They both oppose the new science standards and the hiring of state Commissioner of Education Bob Corkins.

They also believe that policies on sex education should be crafted by local school boards and not just follow the state model, which says parents must give their assent before their children can take such classes, not simply have the right to opt out.

In fact, Mr. Weiss tells registered Republicans to “vote for Harry in the primary, and me in the general election.”

But if anyone says that Mr. McDonald is a RINO, he is quick to point out that he is a five-term Republican precinct committeeman.

“Just because I don’t believe that [the conservatives’] policies are best for our state doesn’t mean that I’m not a Republican,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as Kan. State Board Primaries Find Republicans Divided

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