Inherit an Ill Wind | The Nation


Inherit an Ill Wind

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National Standards & Local Control

About the Author

Edward Larson
Edward Larson is the author of Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and...
Larry Witham
Larry Witham is an author and journalist in Washington, DC.

Bottom-up revolts against authority can come in reaction to top-down reforms, and that was evident in Kansas. The state Board of Education members who rejected evolution were also trying to strike a blow for local control and against national education standards.

The federal push for standards-based education reform began in 1989, when the nation's governors met with President Bush to rally around his call for "measurable national goals" in education. The governors, of course, emphasized state flexibility under increased federal grants, an idea that worked for the Bush White House as well. Some federal education experts, flush with new theories of learning, saw the reform movement in more centralizing terms. Here was a financial and political vehicle to advance a national curriculum.

The Bush Administration's "America 2000" was more a tone-setter than legislation, and the tone was picked up in Kansas. In 1989, led by its then-progressive Board of Education, Kansas set in motion a program to establish measurable and unified goals for its public schools. It fit neatly into a general trend, in which states began to displace local school boards in financing and setting standards for public education.

The centralizing move, along with the rise of new theories of education like outcome-based grading and process-based science, provoked a conservative reaction in many states. In Kansas it was led by Kansas Education Watch, or KEWNET, which criticized experts for usurping the role of parents and local schools. This new grassroots activism began affecting decisions of the elected state Board of Education, especially after 1996, when four social conservatives friendly to KEWNET won seats. The board was then split 5 to 5 on issues of local and state control.

This was not a partisan division in solidly GOP Kansas, but intraparty warfare pitting Bob Dole-type Main Street Republicans against the party's right-wing activists. No one has been more critical of the board than the state's stalwart GOP Governor, Bill Graves, who has advocated abolishing that elected body ever since the right-wing resurgence. Board member Val DeFever, a moderate Republican who voted with the minority on the science standards, calls the conservatives "stealth candidates" who sneaked into power. Others said they were forthright campaigners who promised an independent board, but most voters probably did not fully appreciate what that might mean before the fireworks in August.

Either way, as one Kansas teacher said, the 1996 election "blew the education establishment out of the water. They'd never seen a board like this." Lawrence Lerner, an emeritus science professor, reviews state science standards and how they are adopted. "State boards at least tend to have people with professional qualifications" and are usually appointed, he says. "Kansas is a peculiar situation."

In the nation's capital, meanwhile, under the banner of "Goals 2000," the new Clinton Administration had accelerated the national education reform movement. The Educate America Act, passed by the Democratic Congress in 1994, put teeth behind the call for state education standards. Under the new law, standards written by states had to be reviewed in Washington to insure quality and uniformity in English, history, math and science. That backfired, however, when a federally funded set of history standards came out that conservative critics denounced as replacing "the Founding Fathers" with multicultural heroes. The new Republican Congress responded by deleting federal control of the content of state education standards in 1996.

The states have great flexibility now, although they still tend to follow national trends. Yet, from Washington's point of view the Kansas outcome is well within the state's authority. "We don't review standards for substance, only process," notes Melinda Kitchell Malico, a spokeswoman for the US Department of Education. "We won't be reviewing the Kansas standards."

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