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Evolution debate has created a big bang in Kansas politics

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TOPEKA, Kan. — A decade ago, the biggest complaint about the Kansas Board of Education was that no one knew exactly what it did or who served on it.

A lack of visibility isn't the board's problem now, after its approval last year of new science testing standards that de-emphasize evolution. The decision has become the hottest issue in Kansas politics, with unprecedented attention and spending in the campaigns for board seats.

The Aug. 1 primaries are crucial because the makeup of the board could decide the fate of the science standards; five of the 10 board seats will be filled in the November election.

Conservative Republicans in 1999 led the board in its 6-4 vote to approve the standards, with moderate Republicans and Democrats dissenting. The standards, which are not mandatory for school districts to follow, play down the importance of evolution and omit the big-bang theory of the universe's origin.

Sue Gamble is challenging incumbent board member Linda Holloway, the board's chairwoman when it made the decision. Gamble said students will be negatively affected.

"I feel that they are depriving kids of information that I feel they need to be competitive at the college level," said Gamble, a member of the Shawnee Mission school board. "A good, solid science curriculum would include evolution."

But Holloway contends she's not trying to ban the teaching of evolution, only leave it up to local boards of education.

"My question is, 'So, what's wrong with local control?' " she said.

The board races have received national attention. Earlier this month, actors Ed Asner and James Cromwell played parts in a re-enactment of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," an event held at the University of Kansas. In the landmark case, biology teacher John Scopes was convicted and fined $100 for teaching evolution. His conviction was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on procedural grounds.

Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection helped convince the world that there is evolution, a process that scientists propound stating that the Earth is billions of years old and that the current state of life forms developed over millions of years.

A 1999 Gallup Poll found that 68 percent of American adults favored teaching both creationism and evolution in public schools. By a margin of 55 percent to 40 percent, they opposed replacing evolution with creationism. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points. Creationism proposes that the Earth and most life forms came into existence suddenly about 6,000 years ago. Critics have attacked it as a disguise for a literal translation of the Bible's Book of Genesis.

Debate over the issue has heated up in a number of states, including Alabama, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, West Virginia, Arizona, Michigan, Indiana, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Illinois, Washington and Colorado.

Efforts have included attempts to delete evolution from science standards and tests, and including a disclaimer in textbooks downplaying the importance of the theory.

Many Kansans have complained that the board's decision made the state look backward. Others say leaving the choice to the school district is a good one.

Robb Waters, an architect in Shawnee, said he'll probably vote for Holloway. He's a proponent of intelligent design, the idea that the universe requires an intelligent creator.

"I don't think it was a step backward on the de-emphasis of evolution because they left that on the local board level," he said.

Holloway has raised more than $74,000 and loaned her campaign another $15,000. She spent $35,000 on television advertising.

In 1996, Holloway spent about $27,500 the entire year getting through both the primary and general elections.

Gamble had raised nearly $36,000 for her campaign.

The figures are unimaginable in a race where candidates could previously spend less than $500 and stand a chance of getting elected.

"It's staggering," said Wanda Morrison, who served on the board in 1991-98.

The issue has also created rifts in the Kansas Republican Party, which traditionally has been divided on the issue of abortion. Evolution has now become the litmus test of whether someone is conservative or moderate.

Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate, has endorsed a candidate who opposes the board's new science standards, while conservative U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback has weighed in on the other side.

"Although nuance is possible, people see it in pretty black-and-white terms," said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist. "I do think that it ends up being in some ways more defining than abortion."

On the Net: National Center of Science Education: www.natcenscied.org

Talk Origins: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy: www.talkorigins.org/origins/faqs-evolution.html

Institute for Creation Research: www.icr.org