TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas State Board of Education races this year are shadowed by an emerging conflict over science standards for public schools — and it's not all about evolution.
Climate change is emerging as a potential political flashpoint in Kansas and possibly 25 other states working with the National Research Council on common standards. If adopted, the guidelines could encourage public schools to spend far more time teaching students about the Earth's climate and how human activity affects it.
Kansas state school board candidates are used to questions about the state's science standards because of past debates about how evolution should be taught, but the possibility of a similar debate about climate change is a new twist as the Nov. 6 election approaches. Five of the board's 10 seats are on the ballot, and three races are contested.
The winners, along with the hold-over board members, are expected to vote on new science standards early next year. At least a few conservative Republicans in Kansas are wary of what the standards will say about climate change amid support from educators and scientists for addressing the topic more thoroughly than in the past.
"When you're looking at 100 scientists, you've got 90-some, high 90s, that have no question about climate change, and so for them, they have no problem with that being in," said John Richard Schrock, a veteran biology professor at Emporia State University.
But, he acknowledged, to others, "It looks political."
Debates over evolution have colored state board races for more than a decade. The state had five sets of standards in eight years starting in 1999, as GOP conservatives who were evolution skeptics gained and lost state board majorities in elections. The current, evolution-friendly standards were adopted in 2007, but state law requires them to be updated.
Former state Rep. Cindy Neighbor, a Shawnee Democrat who's seeking a Kansas City-area seat on the state school board, said memories of the international attention Kansas received linger for parents and teachers.
"I think a lot of it was the embarrassment," she said.
A majority of board members now support evolution-friendly science standards. That won't change with this year's elections even though one candidate, Republican challenger Jack Wu of Topeka, has described the theory as "Satanic lies" and has declared he wants public schools to avoid it.
In Neighbor's race, Republican opponent Steve Roberts of Overland Park describes himself as a conservative but holds degrees in engineering and education, and works as a professional math tutor. He said he opposes including material about creationism or intelligent design in science classes.
Kansas uses its science standards to develop annual, standardized tests for students then assesses how well schools teach from the scores. Decisions about textbooks and course content are left to local school boards, but the state standards influence what's taught.
In the past, evolution skeptics argued standards can squelch classroom discussion, and the same argument is certain to arise with language on climate science. Jane Govern, a Eudora educator who helped found a private Catholic school in the northeast Kansas community, said schools should promote dialogue on both evolution and climate change.
"They're not absolutes," she said during a break in a recent candidate forum in Lawrence. "Once you start to teach a scientific theory as absolute, it becomes religion."
Kansas' current science standards touch on climate change with a statement in guidelines for grades 8-12 that says only, "Human activity impacts global climate." In contrast, the multi-state standards under development are likely to contain more detail and make the effects of human activity on climate a core concept starting in elementary school.
Mark McCaffrey, a programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, said the new standards would address what has been "hit or miss" instruction in public schools about climate change.
But earlier this year, a new group, Citizens for Objective Public Education Inc., complained that the first public draft of the standards promoted "politically correct, big government solutions." Hold-over Kansas state board member John Bacon, a conservative Olathe Republican, said if the final draft pushes such an approach, "I wouldn't vote for them."
Meanwhile, the dividing line in a debate over climate change might not be as predictable as in the debate over evolution.
For example, Roberts said that if people consider the vast time scales of ice ages and warmer periods in the earth's history, "you don't get too upset too quickly."
Wu, the anti-evolution candidate, also has gained attention because he regularly attends services at Westboro Baptist in Topeka, the strongly anti-gay church notorious for picketing military funerals. Yet he sees climate change as being linked to manmade pollution.
"It's something definitely in the purview of government," he said during a recent interview.
Wu's opponent, Democratic incumbent Carolyn Campbell of Topeka, said she wants the standards to reflect mainstream scientific thinking.
"I just want our kids to know it all and start it early," she said. "These little young people, their brains are open, and they can soak in more than middle schoolers and high schoolers."
Kansas State Board of Education: http://www.ksde.org/Default.aspx?tabid=54
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna