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Kansas Board Primaries Seen as Win for Moderates

By Jessica L. Tonn — August 08, 2006 3 min read
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The turnout for last week’s primary elections for the Kansas state board of education may have been low, but the impact of the results on policies concerning evolution, sex education, and other hot-button school issues could be anything but.

Two moderates and two conservatives won in the four Republican primaries, ousting one incumbent and signaling a likely shift in control of the board, which has been led by conservative Republicans for the past two years.

A Democratic incumbent won that party’s lone state-board primary on the Aug. 1 ballot. In all, five seats on the 10-member board are up for grabs in November. (“Kan. State Board Primaries Find Republicans Divided,” July 26, 2006.)

In other Kansas primary results, Republican Jim Barnett beat out six candidates for the nomination to face incumbent Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, who did not have a primary election. Primaries were also held for the office of secretary of state, two U.S. House seats, and 26 state House seats.

Control of the state school board has changed twice during the past several election cycles, shifting between members deemed conservative and those seen as moderates, with the teaching of evolution being the major subject of disagreement. The result has been three rewrites of state science standards in that time.

Most recently, conservatives in the board’s six-person majority approved science standards that recommend that students learn about “scientific criticisms” of the theory of evolution and what the document terms “the lack of adequate natural explanations” for certain aspects of evolutionary theory.

Moderates oppose such language in the science standards and other positions such as the board’s recent adoption of an “opt in” policy recommendation on sex education in the state’s health education standards. Moderates have also objected to the board’s promotion of charter schools and vouchers, as well as the hiring last year of Commissioner of Education Bob Corkins, whose support came entirely from conservatives.

With two GOP moderates winning nominations for seats held by conservative Republicans, the Nov. 7 general elections will ensure that either moderate Republicans or Democrats will hold at least six of the 10 board seats for the next two years.

The change will likely mean that policies adopted by the conservative-led board will be re-examined, if not reversed, observers say. Mr. Corkins’ job could also be in jeopardy.

What’s the ‘Status Quo’?

Despite the high profile of the state board races, which received national media attention, just 18 percent of registered voters turned out for the statewide primaries.

According to unofficial results from the state, moderates Jana K. Shaver and Sally Cauble beat their conservative opponents, M. Brad Patzer and incumbent Connie Morris, respectively, in the Republican primaries.

Conservative GOP incumbents Kenneth Willard and John W. Bacon, who each faced two opponents in their primaries, were renominated.

Democrat Janet Waugh, an incumbent, won her primary race against Jesse L. Hall, who, though a Democrat, agreed with the conservatives on the issues of evolution, school choice, and sex education.

State board members are chosen for four-year terms to represent their respective electoral districts. Half the seats come up for election every two years.

On the campaign trail last month, Mr. Willard said he feared that a win by the moderates would roll back policies implemented by the board over the past two years.

“We’ve been trying to initiate some reforms and change of direction for public education, and keep it from being so totally dependent on more funds,” he said. “I would just hate to see it go back to the status quo.”

Ms. Shaver sees it differently. “I can’t see that returning the focus of the state board of education to reasonable decisionmaking, to support for public schools, and to a respect for local control would be a return to the status quo,” she wrote in an e-mail last month.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week as Kansas Board Primaries Seen as Win for Moderates

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