Sebelius attacks school board
Sebelius attacks school board
Democrat wants board accountable to governor's office
Calling the Kansas State Board of Education one of the state's worst public relations tools, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday said she would push in a second term for a constitutional amendment to shift the board's powers to the governor's office.
By Chris Moon, Topeka Capital-Journal, Oct 11, 2006
"I think we have a real institutional, structural problem in the state," Sebelius told The Topeka Capital-Journal editorial board. "The elected school board that we have in place doesn't function in this day and age. There's very little accountability."
The Democratic governor said the board has been an embarrassment to the state in the board's efforts to alter how evolution is taught in the classroom. In an interview, Sebelius said she has encountered people outside the state who have heard of the board's decisions -- and little else -- when it comes to Kansas.
"Fred Phelps and the school board are all they know about," she said. "No amount of economic development dollars can cancel that out."
"The accountability is found at the ballot box," said Emporia Sen. Jim Barnett.
The tough assessment from the governor -- putting the board in the same class as Phelps' anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church -- comes just two months after voters in western and southeast Kansas assured during the primary election that conservatives would lose their hold on the state board.
Moderates will enter 2007 with at least a 6-4 majority on the board and have all but assured they will undo two years of conservative initiatives. But that majority could be as high as 8-2 depending on the outcome of the Nov. 7 general election.
But Sebelius said the "pendulum can swing back in two years."
"We have a structural situation where we have essentially a self-executing elected board of education. Absent changing the constitution, the other alternative is to try and have more frequent dialogue," Sebelius said. "I visit the school board members on a regular basis. They come and go. But right now, there's a disconnect among the board members. The board members don't really have a very uniform agreement on where we're going with education."
The state board has been sharply criticized for altering the state's science curriculum standards to include more criticism of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Opponents of the standards say they amount to creationism and have threatened to sue any district that adopts them.
The board also has been under scrutiny for hiring Bob Corkins as commissioner of education. Corkins is a former conservative think tank operator who never had worked in a public school before his appointment a year ago.
Sebelius noted Kansas has passed legislation aimed at boosting its bioscience industry. But she said the board has put a damper on that by calling into question the theory of evolution. Scientists may be reluctant to relocate here, she said.
"It doesn't give a whole lot of confidence in coming to Kansas," she said.
Sebelius' idea of altering the structure of the board isn't a new one.
Since the board of education was created by a constitutional amendment in 1966, there have been at least 32 legislative efforts to change it. Only three of those proposed constitutional amendments were approved by the Legislature and advanced to a public vote. But all three failed.
The public in 1974, 1986 and 1990 rejected scrapping the board altogether or reducing its powers.
But Sebelius said past efforts were strongly pushed by the governors at the time. And her proposal, said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, is a compromise.
Sebelius said she was willing to leave the 10-member state board intact but make it merely advisory in function. The real power would lay with a secretary of education who would be part of the governor's Cabinet and be charged with watching over school spending, which consists of more than 50 percent of the state's budget.
Under the current system, Sebelius said, "There's no way that taxpayers, business owners, parents can hold them accountable."
Sebelius said she would pattern the plan after one in New Mexico.
"I think it very well could (pass)," Hensley said. "It's never come up in the form she's talking about."
Hensley said he always has been opposed to taking away "people's right to vote on their elected officials." He said Kansans still could vote on their local school board members and the secretary of education would be confirmed by the Senate.
"I could support that," he said. "There's nothing wrong with having another advisory group on education."
He called the board, and its decisions on evolution, "an embarrassment."
But Republican school board member Ken Willard, a conservative who is vying for re-election in Hutchinson, said Sebelius' plan would strip power from voters.
"The further you get that decision-making from the voters, the less responsive it is to the wills and desires of the voting public," Willard said. "I, for one, wouldn't be interested in being on an advisory board. You'd be relegated to insignificance."
And he tried to throw water on the notion the board had been an embarrassment to Kansas. Told of Sebelius' comparison to Phelps, Willard shot back: "What is she doing about it? What kind of communicating are we doing across the country about the great things in Kansas?"
He said the science standards aren't an embarrassment. Instead, Willard said, they are about the "teaching of the controversial subject of evolution in an objective manner."
Barnett defended the board's decision on evolution, saying, "In a free society, it should be perfectly acceptable to question what is taught and to allow for differences of opinion. I believe it's a disservice to limit the scope of what can be considered."
Stripping the board of its powers, he said, would cause voters to become disinterested in education policy.
"What I think is important is that the people of Kansas are engaged in the election process and understand the issues," he said.
Chris Moon can be reached at (785) 233-7470 or email@example.com.