Origin of activism Interest in Kansas school races traced to anti-evolution vote

Sunday, July 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – In this busy Kansas City suburb, Susie Beyer of the Sunflower Elementary PTA was helping children make get-out-the-vote cards for the Aug. 1 state school board primary.

"I don't think we're taking this one for granted," said Ms. Beyer, who is pushing people in her neighborhood to pay attention to an election that she and many others may have all but ignored.

The Kansas State Board of Education gained international attention a year ago when it defied the standards of mainstream science by removing evolution from the required public school science curriculum. Now five of the 10 seats on the state school board – including four held by those who voted to drop the evolution requirement – are on the Aug. 1 state primary election ballot.

The volatile combination of religion, education and ferocious intramural GOP politics has gotten people who had largely tuned out of civic life involved in the campaign. Some are joining groups. Some are lobbying neighbors. Others are just paying more attention.

"There is more interest in and knowledge about the races for the Kansas Board of Education this year than all the previous races laid end to end," said Michael Davis, a University of Kansas law professor who moderated a televised debate on whether evolution alone or other explanations of life's diversity should be taught in science classes.

But given how little Kansans cared about the board before, the increase represents a trickle, not a flood, of new civic engagement. The question is, does a little more interest mean a lot in an age of voter apathy? Or does it mean that almost nothing – not even an issue that stirs passions about faith and the education of children – is enough to inspire Americans to rekindle their concern for community life?

The reluctance of people to participate in the debate at any level is symptomatic of larger trends, said Thomas Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar for Civic Engagement in America, a Harvard-based institute. "But given the changes we've seen in America, maybe small increases [in involvement] are more dramatic than one might think."

'Cultural battle'

All over Kansas there are signs that people are focusing on the evolution debate.

More than a hundred miles southwest of Overland Park, in Emporia, one of Harry Hart's neighbors saw him putting a campaign sign in his yard.

"He said to me, 'I want to know how ... [the candidate] stands on evolution,'" Mr. Hart said – a telling question, because the candidate was running for state Senate, not the school board.

Kris Van Meteren, treasurer of the Topeka-based Free Academic Inquiry and Research Committee and executive director of the conservative Kansas Republican Assembly, said: "The number of new people who have come out in this election is remarkable. This is just one small peek into a cultural battle."

Volunteer-led organizations on both sides of the issue have sprouted – Mr. Van Meteren's committee on one side and the pro-evolution Kansas Citizens for Science on the other, for instance.

PTA membership is up slightly statewide, though the numbers in neighboring states went down last year, said Kansas PTA president Nancy Ryan.

And in February, an annual statewide PTA meeting on major education issues that drew about 30 people the year before attracted more than 200 people, she said. That reflected a general increase in attention to education issues, not just the evolution debate, she said.

The debate has leaked into the state Republican Party, in which the moderate and conservative branches have been clashing for more than a decade. Evolution has replaced abortion as a dividing line between GOP moderates and conservatives, said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. The governor and one of the state's U.S. senators made high-profile endorsements of state school board candidates.

Although newspapers, TV and other media are providing unprecedented coverage of the state school board campaign, it still takes an effort to find people in the suburban malls or the shops and diners of the small towns who are interested in the election.

But for many Kansans, the battle over science education is one that they have chosen not to fight or even discuss much, at least in public. And their reluctance to participate may be part of a larger national pattern.

Reluctant involvement

In his new book, Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam says Americans have become increasingly unwilling in the last 20 years to engage one another in some of the ways that make American democracy successful.

By dozens of measures – such as declining involvement in club meetings, political campaigns and bowling leagues – Americans aren't getting to know and work with one another in ways that were routine for their parents or grandparents.

That's a problem, Dr. Putnam suggests, because American democracy was designed to depend on significant citizen involvement.

The evolution debate may be particularly effective in stirring Kansans to get involved. At stake is nothing less than how people see themselves fitting into the universe, said Richard Milner, an anthropologist who took his one-man dramatic performance Charles Darwin: Live and in Concert to Kansas this month.

"A people define themselves by their origin stories," said Dr. Milner, a senior editor of Natural History magazine at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "If a tribe tells you how they came into being, that will pretty much explain to you who they think they are and how they conduct themselves.''

Changing tides

How obscure was the state Board of Education in the past?

"When I was first asked to run, I wasn't sure what the state Board of Education did, and neither was anybody else I knew," said Mary Douglass Brown, who was elected to the seat that represents Wichita four years ago and voted for the new science standards last year.

"I did almost the whole thing myself last time," she said of her campaign. "I didn't have perfect strangers call and ask me for my signs."

This year is different, she said.

July 10 was the 75th anniversary of the start of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a Tennessee jury convicted a biology teacher of violating the state law against teaching evolution.

Both sides of this year's Kansas evolution debate played host to events during the Scopes anniversary week in an attempt to drive public opinion in advance of the election. Even though the coming election is a primary, GOP winners tend to carry the day in November in mostly Republican Kansas. A moderate, pro-evolution Republican is running for each seat held by creationism supporters.

Representatives of the People for the American Way, which is pro-Darwin, and the Intelligent Design Network, which is anti-Darwin, visited from out of state.

Actors Ed Asner and James Cromwell were the marquee names for a performance of a one-act drama that was broadcast live on radio and television, put together from transcripts of the Scopes trial and the news coverage of 1925. It was sponsored by People for the American Way.

Hundreds of Kansans attended the events conducted by both sides. But the increased civic involvement may seem impressive only when compared with the passivity of the recent past.

Contributions may be up. But both major candidates for the seat representing Wichita, Kansas' largest city, will barely collect $35,000 between them – not much more than two candidates for a seat on the Frisco, Texas, City Council spent last year.

The best attended event of Scopes Week, the play at a theater on the University of Kansas campus, drew about 1,500 people – only two weeks after a hastily called news conference by the school's basketball coach pulled more than 10 times as many spectators to the campus.

Some people's continued apathy may be because many Kansans don't think the state board's vote will have much impact.

The new standards leave local school boards in control. They can choose to require the teaching of evolution or the teaching of nonreligious but less scientifically accepted explanations for life's diversity, such as intelligent-design theory – or both.

And places where faith-linked explanations other than evolution have been quietly taught for years will keep doing that, too, some residents say.

Roxy Curts, who instructs thousands of fifth-graders about the facts of life in Halstead, north of Wichita, said last year's vote on evolution was "the hand of God at work."

Teachers in her area have routinely offered their students alternatives to evolution, she said.

"I didn't know it was that big an issue until it became an issue," she said.

For some, it will become more of an issue next year, when statewide standardized tests will no longer have questions about such mainstream scientific theories as the big-bang origin of the universe, geologic time or evolution.

Leaders on both sides of the debate say their supporters have been galvanized. But they also acknowledge they won't know whether that's true until the votes are counted Aug. 1. And nobody knows whether people drawn in by this debate will continue paying attention to other political or civic questions.

Mr. Davis, the law school professor, was willing to make one prediction: "Never again will people sleep through the Board of Education elections," he said. "No matter which side they're on."


For more information about the Kansas evolution vs. creationism debate:

*Kansas Citizens for Science is pro-evolution. www.kcfs.org.

*People for the American Way sponsored a Kansas performance of a play based on the transcript of the Scopes Monkey Trial. www.pfaw.org.

*Intelligent Design Network says life's complexity can't be the result of chance. www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org.

*The Creation Science Association for Mid-America believes that the biblical account of creation is literally true. www.csama.org.

*Parents for Objective Science and History believes that students should be taught using materials that reflect a wide range of relevant evolutionary and nonevolutionary, but secular, thought. www.posh.roundearth.net.

Civic engagement

BetterTogether, a project of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. www.bettertogether.org.

For information about Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone, www.bowlingalone.com.