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Evolution critical for state board races

7/30/2012

By JOHN HANNA

Associated Press

TOPEKA -- State Board of Education candidates acknowledge they can't escape questions about how Kansas public schools should teach evolution.

Educators expect the board to consider new science standards next year. Kansas is working with 25 other states and the National Research Council on proposed common guidelines, and a draft made public in May described evolution as a well-founded, core scientific concept.

Five of the board's 10 seats are on the ballot in November, and the Aug. 7 primary will settle party nominations in two districts. There's no indication backers of the current, evolution-friendly standards will lose their majority, but memories still linger from past debates that brought Kansas international attention -- and some ridicule.

The state had five sets of science standards from 1999 to 2007, as conservative Republicans skeptical of evolution gained and lost board majorities. The standards have been used to develop achievement tests and influence what is taught in the classroom.

Brian Cole, a Sabetha High School physics and chemistry teacher, said he understands why the debate continues -- as a Christian, he believes God created the world -- but, like other Kansans, isn't eager to see the state reverse course.

"The hard part is when we go back and forth," said Cole, a member of the board of the Kansas Association of Teachers of Science. "It's not good for our teachers -- it's not good for our students -- to have our standards be a pendulum."

Cole lives in the 6th District of northeast and north-central Kansas, represented by retiring board member Kathy Martin, a Clay Center Republican who is among the remaining skeptics. Two Democrats are running for her seat: Usha Reddi, a 46-year-old first-grade teacher from Manhattan, and Carol Viar, a 60-year-old accountant and lay Presbyterian minister who serves on the Southeast of Saline school board. The winner will face former state Rep. Deena Horst, a moderate Salina Republican.

In the 8th District in Wichita, Kathy Busch, a 60-year-old retired assistant superintendent and principal, is trying to unseat 70-year-old incumbent Walt Chappell in the Republican primary. There is no Democrat on the ballot. Chappell was elected in 2008 as a Democrat but changed his affiliation last year.

All four primary candidates are comfortable with the state retaining evolution-friendly science standards and don't list evolution among their top issues.

The proposed multi-state standards draft has been criticized by Citizens for Objective Public Education, a group that sees the proposed guidelines as an attempt to "indoctrinate" students with "non-theistic beliefs." John Calvert, a Kansas City-area attorney representing the recently created group, said under the proposed standards, schools would start trying to influence students' world view in kindergarten and "go for 13 years."

"Only a materialistic or atheistic answer is permitted," said Calvert, a visible figure in past evolution debates in Kansas.

But Chappell described evolution as an issue that distracts Kansans from important questions about how to operate schools cost-effectively and make them accountable for how well students learn. With the science standards, he said, he wants schools to move away from "teaching to the test" to stress practical applications of science, something Cole and other backers said the new ones incorporate.

"I want creativity and innovation," Chappell said.

Busch emphasizes her three decades of education experience and believes she'll be a strong liaison between the state board and local school districts. She said questions that touch on intelligent design are "very appropriately dealt with at the family and church level."

In the 6th District race, both Reddi and Viar said their biggest issues include advocating for adequate education funding and maintaining high academic standards.

Reddi said in order to maintain high academic standards, Kansas must stress "evidence-based" science in its classrooms to prepare its students.

Viar said an issue that takes precedence over evolution, for her, is how rural areas with declining populations will educate their children in the future.

But she acknowledged evolution is a hot topic for voters, even if she's reconciled her faith with mainstream science.

"The Bible is the story of how God loves us, not a science manual," she said.