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Kansas School Board Defends Evolution Stance


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The Kansas Board of Education has made national news over the past year, thanks to its stand on evolution. It approved new curriculum standards that single out the theory of evolution for criticism. Since they took that stand, the conservatives who dominate the school board have taken up a series of other controversial ideas. This month, it was abstinence-only sex education.

NPR's Greg Allen has spent some time looking into the role that religion plays in Kansas education and he has this report.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

If there's an ideological home for the conservative values driving the school board, it might be here, in our Kansas City, a farm town in the southern part of the state. This is where board chairman Steve Abrams makes his home and where he works as a veterinarian. His office is just north of town, the Cottonwood Animal Clinic.

Inside the clinic, Abrams is out of the coat and tie he wears as board chairman. Instead, he's wearing a smock that's decorated with pictures of dogs. He's a big man with mustache and glasses. He walks into a room in his clinic that's full of cages, where some of his patients are waiting.

Dr. STEVE ABRAMS (School Board Chairman, Kansas City): And that's a stinky cat.

(Soundbite of bird)

Dr. ABRAMS: That's a male. And tomcats, they put out an odor that is very noticeable.

ALLEN: Steve Abrams is a big fan of science. That might sound surprising coming from someone who also describes himself as a creationist, who believes in the biblical account of how life began and developed on earth. But he says he has no trouble reconciling science with his faith. And, in fact, there's much about the theory of evolution that he accepts. Abrams talks, for example, about the selective breeding practices that, in a generation, have dramatically increased the size and leanness of cattle.

Dr. ABRAMS: Has that evolved from that steer to this steer right here? Well, some would say so. But that still is a beef, a bovine in the 50s. And it's still a bovine here in the 2000s. So it depends on how you would define evolution. One does not lead necessarily to the other.

ALLEN: Where Abrams draws the line is at the idea that evolution can produce distinct species and that animals on earth, including men, share a common descent. Abrams maintains that he's skeptical about evolution not because of his faith, but because he thinks much of it is based on unsound science. He said it was those concerns, not his religious beliefs, that led him to push for changes in the science standards.

Dr. ABRAMS: We try to definitively separate the religion and the science aspect in the science standards. Everyone has biases. And see, that's what I like about the science. If you focus on what the good tenets of science, it minimizes those biases. It gets back to what is good science.

ALLEN: As for the oft heard criticism that by taking aim at evolution, he and other conservative board members have made Kansas a national laughingstock -

Dr. ABRAMS: Anytime you change directions and change the focus and change what you are trying to do, there's going to be great gnashing of teeth.

ALLEN: What's more important, Abrams says, is how Kansas students are doing. And in that regard, he believes the board has had real success.

Dr. ABRAMS: Our academic processes are improving. The academic scores are improving. Then that ought to be prima fascia evidence that we are indeed, at least trying to move in the right direction. And, certainly, that's evidence that we're not going in the wrong direction.

ALLEN: But, clearly, there are many here in Kansas who disagree, who feel that the monthly school board meetings have become a circus sideshow where conservative ideas overshadow education.

(Soundbite of car horns)

ALLEN: On the corner of 10th and Quincy streets in downtown Topeka, is something that over the last year has become a common sight, a handful of picketers are gathered outside the state Education Department. This month, the protest is about the board's latest issue, abstinence-only sex education. One of the protesters, Bess Johnson(ph), says the board has put Kansas on headlines a lot over the past year, but for all the wrong reasons.

Ms. BESS JOHNSON (Protester Against Board of Ed, Kansas): A lot of the things it's put on the map for is backtracking. It's now taking away information from teens and adding in viewpoints that shouldn't be in schools because of separation of church and state. So it's very difficult as a Kansan.

(Soundbite of School Board meeting)

Dr. ABRAMS: Let's have the call to order and the Pledge of Allegiance, please.

ALLEN: Inside the conference room, where Steve Abrams chairs the board's monthly meetings, a look at the U-shaped table quickly illustrates the political realities. On the right side of the table are four board members who usually vote together. They're the moderates. On the left side and the center, where Abrams presides, is the other faction, the six members who voted to adopt science standards critical of evolution.

On this day, they're discussing an idea proposed by Kathy Martin, the board's newest conservative member. It would require school districts to make abstinence until marriage part of their health curriculum or risk losing accreditation. Kansas schools already teach abstinence in sex ed classes, but Martin says they also tell students about contraception. And that, she feels, sends a mixed message.

Ms. KATHY MARTIN (School Board Member, Kansas): The message gets kind of skewed as to actually promoting using contraceptives. I don't think that's the best message we ought to send - schools ought to be sending to young people. That there is no safe sex is what I think, until marriage.

ALLEN: Ultimately, Martin's proposal is watered down and the board decides to make the mandate a recommendation. But it's a rare setback for conservatives in Kansas. In March, the board adopted an opt-in policy for sex education. Meaning that schools would be instructed to offer sex ed to students whose parents returned a consent form.

Last fall, the board hired a new superintendent of schools, the former head of a conservative think tank, who's lost no time promoting vouchers in charter schools. And, of course, the big one, when the board last year approved science standards that singled out evolution for criticism and which encouraged students and teachers to consider alternate ideas about how life developed on earth.

Harry McDonald has been there for all of it. McDonald is a former high school teacher and president of Kansas Citizens for Science who's running for a seat on the school board. McDonald charges that conservatives have used the board and Kansas schools to promote their personal agendas, much of which, he says, is based on religious ideology.

Mr. HARRY McDONALD (Kansas Citizens for Science): And that's kind of the board's point of view: we know what's right, religiously. And they don't honor religious views that are contrary of theirs. And they want to impose their religious views by way of educational mandates for the whole state. And I think that's absolutely inappropriate.

ALLEN: In the hallway, during a break in the meeting, Board Member Kathy Martin says she strongly believes that religion belongs in the schools. Even though you can't teach religion, she says, in her view, faith and religious convictions should inform all decisions, including those affecting the schools. And she believes Kansas parents feel the same way.

Ms. MARTIN: My constituency has told me, by voting for me overwhelmingly, that they agreed with my views. And they are conservative views. And yes, I think anyway parents want that message for their kids.

Dr. ABRAMS: Well, you don't mind being called a conservative, I don't think. Do you?

Ms. MARTIN: No, not a bit. I don't mind being called a Christian. I can tell you that right now, too.

ALLEN: The school board will soon have a chance to find out exactly how Kansans feel about their actions. Four of the six conservatives are up for reelection this year. All are facing moderate challengers in races that are likely to attract attention and money, not just in Kansas, but also from around the country.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning EditionAll Things Considered
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.