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Masterson hopes new map moves Kansas school board to right

Christopher Sessums
flickr Creative Commons

Republican legislators are pushing a redistricting plan that they hope will make the state school board more conservative.

TOPEKA — Republican legislators in Kansas are pushing a redistricting plan that the state Senate's top GOP leader hopes will move the state school board to the right and give conservatives more say over what's taught in public schools.

The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would redraw the districts for the 10-member elected State Board of Education so that districts are as equal in population as possible after a decade of shifts across Kansas. The 31-8 vote sent the measure to the House, and lawmakers expect to give final approval to new lines for board districts and for their own districts before the Republican-controlled Legislature begins its annual spring break Saturday.

Republicans hold a 6-4 majority on the state school board, but it has become far less conservative than the Legislature. The board sets curriculum guidelines for public schools.

From 1999 until 2007, Kansas endured international ridicule over debates about teaching evolution in its public schools as the board adopted five sets of science standards in eight years and its majority seesawed between conservatives and a Democratic-moderate GOP coalition.

Senate President Ty Masterson, a conservative Andover Republican and the redistricting plan's architect, said he’s hoping for “more vibrant conversation” among board members about education policy “instead of one monolithic vision.”

“It would be good if there were more conservatives on the board,” Masterson said. “You have these offices that need more attention because we need more discussion on that, so the result is the State Board of Education doesn’t reflect Kansas.”

Conservative lawmakers are frustrated that the board hasn't moved on its own to limit what can be taught about race and the role of racism in U.S. history or to make it easier to remove materials from classrooms and libraries.

“Their responses to parents’ concerns have not been as robust as I would probably have hoped,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, a conservative Augusta Republican and chair of a House committee on education spending. “Kansans are generally to the right of many of our board members.”

Redrawing state board districts traditionally has been an afterthought for lawmakers, with plans attached to state House and Senate maps just before they clear the Legislature. Each board district is four state Senate districts, so top House Republicans plan to defer to GOP senators' wishes.

Board members have their own map, one more likely to preserve the political status quo. That proposal avoided putting two incumbents in any district.

Board member Ann Mah, a Topeka Democrat, said the board's plan would ensure that it continues to “stand up” to the Legislature.

As for Masterson, Mah said, “If he could mess it up and have a weak board that the Legislature could control, that would be, you know, right up his alley."

GOP lawmakers' plan would pair Republican board members Jean Clifford, of Garden City, and Deena Horst, of Salina, in a single, sprawling western and central Kansas district. In the Kansas City area, Democratic board members Janet Waugh, of Kansas City, and Melanie Haas, of Overland Park, would share a district.

The measure also would carve up the Kansas City, Kansas, area among three board districts, while the board's plan would split it between two. The area is in a single district now, represented by Waugh.

“Carving it up with what appears to be a more partisan divide is a little unsettling,” said Democratic state Sen. David Haley, of Kansas City, adding that minority communities could lack “a clear voice” in board debates.