A decade ago, the biggest complaint about the Kansas Board of Education was that no one knew exactly what it did or who served on it.
A lack of visibility isn't the board's problem now, after its approval last year of new science testing standards that de-emphasize evolution. The hottest issue in Kansas politics, it's causing unprecedented spending in the race for board seats.
The primaries today are crucial because the makeup of the board could decide the fate of the science standards; five of the 10 seats will be filled in November.
Conservative Republicans in 1999 led the board in its 6-to-4 vote to approve the standards, with moderate Republicans and Democrats dissenting. The standards, which are not mandatory for school districts, play down evolution and omit the big-bang theory of the universe's origin.
Sue Gamble is challenging incumbent board member Linda Holloway, the chairwoman when the decision was made. "I feel that they are depriving kids of information that I feel they need to be competitive at the college level," says Ms. Gamble, a member of the Shawnee Mission school board. "A good, solid science curriculum would include evolution."
But Ms. Holloway contends she's not trying to ban the teaching of evolution, only leave it up to local boards of education. "My question is, 'So, what's wrong with local control?' " she says.
The board races have received national attention. In July, actors Ed Asner and James Cromwell played parts in a reenactment of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial." In the landmark case, biology teacher John Scopes was fined $100 for teaching evolution. His conviction was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on procedural grounds.
A 1999 Gallup Poll found that nearly 70 percent of American adults favored teaching both creationism and evolution in public schools. Debate over the issue has heated up in a number of states, including Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Washington, and West Virginia.
Many Kansans have complained that the board's decision made the state look backward. Others say leaving the choice to the school district is a good one.
Robb Waters, an architect in Shawnee, says he'll probably vote for Holloway. He's a proponent of intelligent design, the idea that the universe requires an intelligent creator. "I don't think it was a step backward on the de-emphasis of evolution, because they left that on the local board level," he says.
Holloway has raised more than $74,000 and loaned her campaign another $15,000. She spent $35,000 on television advertising. In 1996, Holloway spent about $27,500 getting through both the primary and general elections. Gamble has raised nearly $36,000. In previous years, candidates could get by wit spending less than $500.
The issue has created rifts in the state Republican Party, which traditionally has been divided on the issue of abortion. Evolution has now become a litmus test.
Gov. Bill Graves (R), a moderate, has endorsed a candidate who opposes the board's new science standards, while conservative US Sen. Sam Brownback (R) has weighed in on the other side.
"Although nuance is possible, people see it in pretty black-and-white terms," says Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist. "I do think that it ends up being in some ways more defining than abortion."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society