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Conservatives sweep races for seats on Kansas State Board of Education

Kansas State Board of Education member Michelle Dombrosky addresses a Kansans First Rally in Kansas City, Kansas in September 2022.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Kansas State Board of Education member Michelle Dombrosky addresses a Kansans First Rally in Kansas City, Kansas in September 2022.

Unofficial results show four seats on the Kansas State Board of Education were won by conservative candidates who want to restrict how race and social-emotional learning are taught in schools.

Conservatives appear to have won a slate of seats on the Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday night, pushing the moderate board further to the right.

In District 3, covering southern Johnson County and part of Miami County, incumbent Michelle Dombrosky won the race against newcomer Sheila Albers by just over 6,000 votes, according to unofficial results.

Dombrosky, who won her seat in 2019, pushed for local control and funding for schools, and voiced concerns about school officials and the government violating privacy laws for students needing mental or physical health care.

“That's where a lot of our problems are happening, is at the federal level coming into our schools,” Dombrosky said at a September rally in Kansas City, Kansas. “And then our local schools, which we should get back to, need to be locally funded and locally controlled.”

Albers, who has worked in various roles in public schools over her 25-year career, ran on a platform of expanding early childhood education, addressing the national teacher shortage and school safety in the wake of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

School board elections — once low-key contests on the ballot — are now the stage for fierce debates over who should control curriculum and how race is taught in schools. Those issues were at the forefront of the five races on the ballot for seats on the state board of education.

Following her loss, Albers said she thinks public education is in jeopardy.

"I specifically got in this race because I'm concerned about some of the extremists who are making their way onto our local and state school boards," Albers said. "I feel there's an effort to defund our public schools and to not support teachers as professionals in the classroom, which I think ultimately hurts kids."

In northeastern Kansas, Republican Danny Zeck won against Democrat Jeffrey Howards for the District 1 seat by more than 22,000 votes. On his campaign site, Howards said “extremists” are jeopardizing public schools and want to “micromanage teachers.”

Meanwhile, Zeck doubled down on concerns about parents’ role in education on his campaign site.

“It is time to stop the Washington Liberal Standards from dictating values that do not fit Kansas Education. We must put Parents In Charge of their child's Education,” Zeck said.

Those concerns were echoed by the races’ conservative candidates. Their campaign pages expressed support for “parent-oriented” education, local control and “opt-in” for social-emotional learning.

Conservatives are now pushing against social-emotional learning, linking it with critical race theory. However, the Kansas Department of Education lists social-emotional growth as one of its five priorities, which teaches students “self-awareness, social awareness, problem solving, and decision making.”

According to an online survey filled out on iVoterGuide, conservative candidates agreed that teachers who are licensed should be allowed to carry guns at school. The site is a division of the American Family Association Action, whose parent group is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The board already shifted to the right after August’s primary election, when two conservative candidates ousted their more centrist Republican incumbents. Republican Dennis Hershberger defeated incumbent Ben Jones in District 7, which covers central Kansas. In District 5 in western Kansas, Cathay Hopkins beat out incumbent Jean Clifford.

Hershberger, Hopkins, and moderate Republican board Chairman Jim Porter, ran unopposed to secure seats on the board.

The state board of education's map was redrawn earlier this year, splitting Wyandotte County into three districts and Johnson County from two districts into three. Republican legislators hoped the redistricting would allow more conservatives to win seats on what is typically a moderate board.

The 10-member board is now made-up of seven Republicans and three Democrats, which could shift how it makes policies for the state’s public schools.

The state board of education sets subject-area standards and graduation requirements for schools. Local school districts make decisions on specific curriculum and the Kansas legislature and governor make decisions on school funding.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.