Joco Opinion

June 11, 2013

Evolution is alive and well in Kansas

In Topeka, bad ideas about education never really die.

Science and reason won in Kansas.

I had to type that sentence fast, before the Legislature reconvenes. And I could be overstating the case: By the time you read this, the effort to block what’s called Next Generation Science Standards from being taught in Kansas schools may have been revived. In Topeka, bad ideas about education never really die.

But thanks to a Kansas House vote on June 1, a bill that would have blocked the state board of education from adopting the standards — developed by several national science organizations with input from states throughout the U.S. — was defeated.

The bill also would have established a legislative oversight committee to examine those standards and the Common Core State Standards now in use by 45 states (including Kansas), the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories and the U.S. military’s network of schools.

The bill’s history is painful, and if you really want a lesson in politics, read up on how this legislation was used as a bargaining chip in an effort to get votes for a totally unrelated bill on taxes. I don’t have the heart to go into it here.

Although the bill didn’t make it all the way through the Legislature, the mind-set that gave it an overwhelming victory the Senate and 55 votes in the House isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s the same mind-set that recoils from anything remotely associated with Washington, fed by a paranoia that the federal government is going to ... to do what? I’m not really sure. Take away our guns, or something.

In this case, the paranoia is even more misplaced than usual, given that the Common Core State Standards, which deal specifically with English and math, aren’t coming from the federal government. They’re coming from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and were developed with input from teachers, parents and community leaders across the country.

But don’t tell that to state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican, who was quoted in the Topeka Capital-Journal as saying that the Common Core standards represented “a dramatic centralization of authority over the nation’s historically decentralized public schools.”

Even if that were true, no centralization of authority could be nearly as dramatic as that feared by state Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, a Republican from Grandview Plaza. According to the Capital-Journal, Rothlisberg “quoted extensively from the U.S. Constitution, blasted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and warned against Marxism in his comments against Common Core.”

“We are a sovereign state,” Rothlisberg said. “No matter what is said, this is a federal law, a federal requirement.”

No, it’s not. The standards are completely voluntary, and for the record, neither Barack Obama nor anyone else in the federal government wrote any of them. The effort was largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an organization that owes its very existence to the success of the capitalist system and has, as far as any rational person can tell, very few Marxist tendencies.

It’s also worth noting that the Common Core standards don’t dictate how individual districts should do their jobs. They simply set forth a consistent set of standards for what students nationwide should learn. How that learning is accomplished is left to local control.

The Next Generation Science Standards are a separate initiative but are driven by a similar philosophy: collaborative development of guidelines and a common base of knowledge that prepares all students to compete in the global economy.

Naturally, that’s a problem in Kansas. Because groups like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science — three of the organizations that helped develop the standards — apparently don’t have what it takes to offer appropriate advice on science education in the Sunflower State.

Never mind that Kansas was among the states that helped develop the standards to begin with. That effort involved the Kansas Department of Education, which is a perennial target of the Legislature. That’s why the whole “legislative oversight committee” idea never goes away.

I’d love to think that opponents of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards really have children’s best interests at heart. That they want Kansas children to learn everything that children elsewhere in the U.S. are learning. That they respect the expertise of organizations representing science professionals and educators. And that they would never let non-evidence-based personal beliefs influence what Kansas schoolchildren are taught in science classes.

The failure of the meddlesome, politically driven “education” bill should give me comfort. But the margin was slim, and opponents of the new standards aren’t going to let this one go. They’ll be back, with a proposal that has mutated just enough that it might survive the volatile Topeka legislative environment.

In Kansas, that’s just the way things evolve.

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