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Evolution dominates Kansas school election


It is just a Kansas school board election, a primary election at that. But no one in Kansas or anywhere else is taking this race for granted.

Tens of thousands of dollars have been raised, some of it from out of state. (Previous school board candidates usually raised only a few hundred dollars.) Candidates are taking the unusual step of running television ads and are printing leaflets and yard signs by the thousands.

Democrats are switching their party affiliation to Republican just to vote for school board candidates in the Republican primary. And in what political observers consider an extraordinary move, Kansas' highest-ranking Republicans - the governor and a U.S. senator - have not only weighed in on the race, but have endorsed opposing candidates in their party.

"When was the last time you were even aware who was running for your state board of education?" asked Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Kansas.

The frenzy is the upshot of a vote last August by the Kansas Board of Education, which removed evolution as an explanation for the origin of species and the universe from the state's science curriculum. The decision, a 6-4 vote with conservative Republicans in the majority, reverberated in other states that have faced recent battles between evolution and creationism.

Kansas did not ban the teaching of evolution, leaving that option up to local school districts. But its decision means that evolution will not be included in the state assessment tests that evaluate student performance, which may discourage teachers from devoting time to the subject. The board also removed from the curriculum the big-bang theory of the origin of the universe.

Five of 10 Board of Education seats are up for election, and in four of the five there is a primary face-off on Tuesday, with conservative Republicans who favor the new science standards being challenged by moderate Republicans who oppose them. In heavily Republican Kansas, the primary winners will be strongly favored to win in November.

The election is being watched around the nation because, more than a decade after the Supreme Court said states could not compel the teaching of creationism, evolution opponents are pressing state and local school boards to play down the importance of evolution by presenting it, alongside creationism and other theories, as just one unproven explanation.

In October, two months after the Kansas decision, state officials in Kentucky eliminated the word "evolution" but not the scientific theory from school curriculum, substituting the phrase "change over time." In Oklahoma, officials recently ordered that textbooks carry a disclaimer about the certainty of evolution, similar to a step already taken by Alabama.

Evolution's defenders have been active too, winning a victory last fall when New Mexico banned creationism and endorsed evolution in the science curriculum. Texas, Ohio, Washington, New Hampshire, Tennessee and other states have considered, but defeated, proposals by evolution critics, including some that would have required teachers to also present evidence contradicting it.

"It strikes me that evolution is even more of a litmus test than abortion now - courtesy of the Kansas Board of Education," said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist. "It is really the defining characteristic of Kansas politics now."

The issue is even figuring in a hotly contested congressional race for the district that borders Kansas City. The moderate Republican candidate, Greg Musil, has run television ads saying, "I'm embarrassed that Kansas is now being called a backward state."

Groups like People for the American Way sponsored a re-enactment of the Scopes "monkey trial" at the University of Kansas this month, starring Ed Asner, a native Kansan.

In Wichita, the conservative school board incumbent, Mary Douglass Brown, said that the new standards "put a little crack in the foundation" of evolution scientists, "their money, their books, their schools. There's a lot of money in evolution. To me, it's pseudoscience."

"I don't believe that humans descended from apes, no," she said. "How come there's still apes running around loose and there are humans? Why did some of them decide to evolve and some did not? Did they choose to stay as a monkey or what?" she asked.

Ideas like that spurred Carol Rupe, a former Wichita school board member, to run against her.

Rupe said she was "embarrassed when suddenly after the vote last summer we were called by our friends and relatives in other states wondering what kind of state we lived in," she said. "We said it was just a few people. But my goodness, if those few are re-elected, then it reflects on the entire state."

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