Evolution and the Kansas primaries


As the August 1, 2006, Kansas primary election approaches, evolution is a burning issue. The state board of education is at the center of the furor, of course; in November 2005, the board voted 6-4 to adopt a set of state science standards that were rewritten, under the tutelage of local "intelligent design" activists, to impugn the scientific status of evolution. The standards were denounced by a host of critics, including a group of 38 Nobel laureates (PDF), the National Science Teachers Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the committee that wrote the original standards, the authors of the Fordham Foundation's report (PDF) on state science standards, and the Kansas Association of Teachers of Science. In addition, the standards have been rejected by at least one local school district. Because the terms of five of the seats on the board expire in 2006, the primary election (as well as the general election in November) afford a chance for supporters of evolution education to change the balance of power on the board, just as they did in 2000.

In District 1, incumbent Janet Waugh, a supporter of evolution education, is facing a primary challenge from Jesse Hall, who, the Lawrence Journal World (July 6, 2006) reports, supports the present science standards. In District 3, incumbent John Bacon, a member of the antievolution majority, is facing a primary challenge from Harry McDonald and David Oliphant; the winner will face Don Weiss in the general election. In District 5, incumbent Connie Morris, a member of the antievolution majority, is facing a primary challenge from Sally Cauble; the winner will face Tim Cruz. In District 7, incumbent Ken Willard, a member of the antievolution majority, is facing a primary challenge from Donna Viola and M. T. Liggett; the winner will face Jack Wempe. In District 9, Iris Van Meter, a member of the antievolution majority, is not running for re-election, but her son-in-law Brad Patzer hopes to replace her. He will face Jana Shaver in the primary, and the winner will face Kent Runyan in the general election. Except for Hall and Patzer, all of the hopefuls have expressed opposition to the state science standards as adopted, many in their responses [Link broken] to a questionnaire from the Kansas Alliance for Education.

In their recent editorials, the state's major newspapers cited the positions of the candidates on the state science standards as a major consideration. For example, the Wichita Eagle (July 9, 2006) commented, "It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry about the doings of the Kansas State Board of Education. A faction of far-right conservatives has turned the state board into its own ideological hobbyhorse, drawing widespread condemnation from the academic community, not to mention international ridicule. ... The board's ideological and ill-informed approach to evolution and science standards has been nothing short of a fiasco." Over in Missouri, the Kansas City Star (July 9, 2006) commented, "Kansans deserve a better state Board of Education. The Aug. 1 primary election gives voters an opportunity to make much-needed changes in a board that has become seriously sidetracked by religious issues. The board attracted national and even international ridicule by including criticism of Darwin's theory of evolution in the science standards that direct school districts in their curriculum choices."

Promoters of "intelligent design" both inside and outside the state are mounting campaigns to defend the flawed standards. The Lawrence Journal-World (July 8, 2006) reported that the Discovery Institute was launching such a campaign; Steve Case, the cochair of the committee that wrote the original standards, responded, "Everybody sees through the intent of the Discovery Institute," adding, "Kansans are not appreciative of folks coming in from the outside, trying to explain it to us." A representative of the Discovery Institute told Channel 49 News (July 7, 2006) that the timing of the campaign was unrelated to the primary elections, prompting Jack Krebs, the president of Kansas Citizens for Science to comment, "I can't even believe they said that ... it's the next two or three weeks that you really catch the public's attention about these issues." The Discovery Institute refused to divulge the cost of its campaign, which reportedly is to include a web-based information campaign, a petition drive, and a series of radio advertisements. Meanwhile, the Intelligent Design Network, based in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, is conducting its own series of presentations throughout Kansas in late July. Kansas Citizens for Science and other groups supporting science education are working to counteract these campaigns.

As for the gubernatorial election, the Johnson County Sun (July 13, 2006) asked [Link broken] all seven of the Republican hopefuls to answer a questionnaire including the question, "Should public schools be allowed to teach intelligent design in science classes?" Jim Barnett answered yes, adding, "I believe all views should be taught, but these decisions should be made by local school boards without state mandates or restrictions"; Robin Jennison answered yes; Timothy Pickell answered no, adding, "While I have a strong personal opinion concerning God's brilliant work, we should teach science in science classes and religion in a religion class"; and Rex Crowell answered yes, adding, "Science classes should be permitted to acknowledge that some believe in an intelligent design theory. Personally, my God is great enough to intelligently design evolution." Ken Canfield declined to answer the question, and Dennis Hawver and Richard Rodewald failed to answer the questionnaire at all. The winner of the primary will face incumbent governor Kathleen Sebelius (D) in the November election; Sebelius issued a statement deploring the adoption of the antievolution standards in November 2005.