Incumbent, foes for state board seat differ on evolution, local control
Controversy has earned 3rd District Kansas State School Board member John Bacon plenty of company on next Tuesday's primary ballot.
The seat on the board that has made national headlines for changing the state science standards on evolution has attracted a total of four candidates to the race this year, all from Olathe. District 3 incumbent John Bacon, who is part of the board's conservative majority, has served for eight years. His challengers -- Republicans Harry McDonald and Dave Oliphant and Democrat Don Weiss -- all disagree with Bacon's views and are determined to unseat him. Tuesday's election will determine who will run against Democrat Don Weiss.
As a former educator, McDonald was one of the founding members of the Kansas Citizens for Science. The organization's focus has been to ensure that the state science standards are in the best interest of students, McDonald said. He was himself a science teacher for 30 years in the Blue Valley school district and now works at Greenbush, a long-distance education group.
McDonald said he's been to six state school board meetings since he began his campaign in January. He said he's also contacted all of the area superintendents to learn about their school districts.
"I knew I was going to have to work hard," he said. "Bacon has gotten re-elected because he's had a base that gets out and votes. More reasonable candidates tend to get elected when you have a large turnout, so that's what I've been working toward."
The candidates have all had a variety of chances to meet voters and to debate issues. They met voters in De Soto High School last month during a learning session on how Kansas funds its schools.
McDonald said divisive issues like sex education, the hiring of Bob Corkins -- a man with no education experience as education commissioner -- the issue of funding charter schools and vouchers will all likely be resolved after the elections.
"But after that, there's going to be four years of service, and I have a background in education that will enable me to have insight far more than John Bacon," he said.
McDonald said if he were able to win the primary, a campaign between him and Democrat Don Weiss would likely focus more on qualifications, since he said they agree on many issues.
Dave Oliphant said he decided to run as the voice of the regular voter. As a parent, he's had many concerns about Kansas education. Oliphant worked in the restaurant business for 15 years, and then went back to college to become an architect. He works for architectural firm Wilson Johnson Embers. He said he also agreed with McDonald and Weiss on many issues.
Oliphant was also critical of how the Kansas State Board has sought to wrest control away from local school boards. Much of his campaign material focuses on giving control to local boards so parents and patrons can have a stronger voice, especially on the issue of selecting appropriate books for school libraries, for example.
"My position is that really needs to be decided at the local level," Oliphant said. "The state school board should not be in the business of banning books."
He said that's also important with sex education in schools.
Oliphant also said he's concerned about Kansas taxpayers funding the education of people who enter the United States illegally.
Bacon said in a June interview his reason for giving more control to the state board, rather than local boards, is the moral responsibility for Kansas taxpayers. He said local boards aren't paying enough attention to the wishes of patrons. He argued that the decision to change the state science standards was not to teach religion, but to introduce a scientific skepticism of evolution.
Earlier this year, state school board members also changed the policy for sex education courses. Parents must now opt-in for their children to take the class. Most districts, including De Soto, required parents to sign opt-out forms if they didn't want children to learn sex education in the classroom. Those in favor of opt-out instead of opt-in are concerned students will not receive proper information about sex because they'll forget to sign forms. Bacon argued otherwise.
"I think that it's important parents are aware so they can coach them on values," he said. "You have to figure out a way to get the parents' attention," he said.
Bacon has won two elections as state board member.
"I feel like I'm doing a good job of representing the people in my district and was encouraged to serve in this capacity by several people, and I'd like to do it again," he said.