Archive for Thursday, November 17, 2005

Evolution vote doesn’t end state board’s bickering

November 17, 2005

— The State Board of Education last week finished its battle over evolution, but the war continues.

"The main purpose of the Board of Education is to provide a good education for the young people of Kansas, but now the hard right agenda is front and center," said Mel Kahn, a political science professor at Wichita State University.

Last week, the board in a 6-4 vote approved science standards that criticize evolution, ending for now a yearlong struggle charged by religion that was played on a national stage.

But the vote certainly didn't end board dissension.

Certain of victory, board Chairman Steve Abrams, a conservative Republican, pushed the standards through along with a resolution that detailed the conservative side's reasoning for the standards.

Moderates on the short end of the vote saw Abrams' resolution as adding insult to injury.

"I'm very disappointed in you," board member Carol Rupe, R-Wichita, said to Abrams. Abrams said the resolution was needed to explain why the standards were needed.

At the same meeting, newly hired Education Commissioner Bob Corkins' travel plans with conservative board members and his pursuit of private school vouchers caused another eruption.

Corkins announced he was going on multiple-city tours with two conservative board members, Connie Morris of St. Francis and Ken Willard of Hutchinson, both Republicans.

Janet Waugh, a Democrat from Kansas City, asked why Corkins didn't invite her to a recent series of meetings he held with groups in her district.

She said she heard secondhand that Corkins promoted private school vouchers and expansion of charter schools at the meetings.

Corkins has long favored those positions, but the board has yet to endorse them.

"My understanding is the commissioner speaks for the board. Are you speaking for the board or are you speaking for yourself?" Waugh asked.

Corkins said he would never advocate something the board didn't support. Morris said moderates were jumping the gun in their opposition to charter schools and vouchers.

"The attacks have come out before we've even had a discussion," she said.

Corkins' hiring last month by the 6-4 majority and his subsequent actions continue to ignite controversies.

Corkins has hired public relations help for $5,000 a month to handle media relations, and another consultant for $2,500 a month to handle his transition.

He defended the moves, saying the P.R. contract was less than the former information director was paid, and the transition work was needed to help him evaluate the agency.

Sue Gamble, a moderate Republican from Shawnee, complained, "I'm concerned about the concept of transitioning when I have no idea what we are transitioning to."

Kahn said the board's fights were "certainly diversionary."

Kahn said there needed to be bridge-building between the factions and a recognition that "nobody can expect to have their way all the time."

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who opposes the change in the science standards, urged voters to get familiar with what the board is doing. Four of the six members who voted for the standards are up for re-election next year.

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