By Suzanne Perez
Conservatives frustrated with Kansas public school policies won seats on the state Board of Education on Tuesday and could push to reshape the lessons taught in schools.
Two Republican members of the board were ousted by challengers who spoke out against lessons on racism, sexuality and gender identity. They also say parents should have more control over what happens in classrooms.
“A lot of people are concerned about indoctrination instead of education,” said Dennis Hershberger, who defeated incumbent Ben Jones in central Kansas. “Things in the classroom are much more about creating a society that most people and most parents don’t agree with, and academics is taking a backseat.”
It was a distinct change from what are normally low-interest, low-turnout races for the board, which sets education policy and academic standards for schools across the state.
There is not a Democratic challenger in any of the three races, so the conservative challengers, along with moderate board Chairman Jim Porter, have secured seats on the board.
Hershberger, who lives near Yoder, is chairman of the Reno County Republican Party and defeated Jones by about 9,000 votes.
In District 5 in western Kansas, incumbent Jean Clifford of Garden City lost by about 5,000 votes to Cathy Hopkins of Hays, who ran unsuccessfully last fall for a seat on the Hays school board.
Porter held off a primary challenge from Luke Aichele, a McPherson barber who opened his business in defiance of COVID-19 protocols in 2020. Porter represents District 9 in southeast Kansas.
Dennis Hershberger, who lives near Yoder, won the District 7 seat on the Kansas Board of Education, ousting incumbent Ben Jones.
Hershberger, a former nurse and truck driver, said Wednesday that his primary victory reflects widespread frustration over plummeting test scores and the state of public schools in general.
Hershberger and his wife primarily homeschooled their four children, though one graduated from a private Christian school. He thinks the Kansas board is “rubber-stamping” decisions by Education Commissioner Randy Watson and should have more direct control over schools.
Hershberger decried what he calls “woke” leanings in public education, including efforts to be more inclusive and welcoming of trans students.
“I mean, it’s just common sense. God created man and woman, and now we have a culture that is telling us that that is not even reality anymore,” he said.
“I have a biblical worldview. I believe that God put things in order to work a certain way, and now a lot of that is at risk.”
School board meetings across Kansas have become battlegrounds for protests about mask mandates, critical race theory and other issues. Last fall, races for local school board seats drew more attention than usual, as well as high-profile endorsements and national PAC money.
In Wichita, three of four conservative candidates won seats on the school board. In the Derby district just south of Wichita, a conservative majority took over in January and immediately lifted mask mandates. Weeks later, several board members took issue with a principal who showed a video about white privilege.
Conservative candidates running for the state board raised similar issues, though not via most traditional media. Hershberger and Hopkins, two of the primary winners, told The Sentinel newsletter last month that they would support arming teachers.
“I would entertain supporting the removal of gun-free zones. Bragging that there are defenseless children and adults within the walls makes zero sense,” Hopkins told The Sentinel, a media arm of the conservative Kansas Policy Institute. “Teachers and staff have Second Amendment rights, too.”
Hershberger said warnings should be posted at school entrances that “any violent intent will be met with deadly force.”
Hershberger said he favors school voucher systems like one in Indiana, which was expanded last year to include most middle-class families. Such systems let parents enroll their children in private schools, using all or part of the public funding set aside for their education.
“The money should follow the child, right? … They (Indiana) have been doing it successfully for 10 years, and I don’t understand why everybody isn’t doing that,” he said.
Members of the Kansas Board of Education serve four-year terms. They set subject-area standards but do not make specific curriculum decisions — those are up to local school boards.
The board also doesn’t make decisions about school funding. Those issues are handled by the Kansas Legislature and governor.
Two more seats on the 10-member board are up for election in November.
Democrat Jeffrey Howards will face Republican Danny Zeck for the District 1 seat currently held by Janet Waugh. That district includes northeast Kansas and part of Topeka.
In District 3, which covers much of the Kansas City suburbs, incumbent Republican Michelle Dombrosky will face Democrat Sheila Albers.