DENVER — Foes of Kansas' controversial science standards that recommend questioning evolution appeared to have ousted one of its most vocal supporters Tuesday night, paving the way for the state board of education to reverse the policy.
The conservative school board last year passed the standards, which recommend teaching alternative theories to evolution, by a 6-4 vote. Moderates challenged three of the conservatives in the Republican primary but were unable to oust two. In western Kansas though, challenger Sally Cauble appeared to have defeated incumbent Connie Morris.
Cauble was leading 54% to 46% with more than 90% of the votes tallied.
Foes of the science standards did pick up an open seat that had previously been held by a conservative, and the lone Democratic incumbent beat back a primary challenge. If Cauble's lead holds up it would give moderates a 6-4 majority on the board, enough to reverse the science standards.
Jack Krebs, the head of Kansas Citizens for Science, which backed the moderate challengers, said Tuesday that the incremental gain was still heartening. "I'm hoping this shows Kansas, politically, wants to return to the center," he said.
Advocates of intelligent design -- a theory that life is so complicated that it must have been purposefully created and could not have evolved randomly -- have suffered several setbacks recently. A federal judge voided a policy instituted last year in Dover, Pa., mandating that intelligent design be taught in schools, and voters threw out the school board that adopted it. Ohio rescinded its policy calling for questioning evolution.
John West, a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which advocates questioning evolution in schools and funded radio ads defending Kansas' science standard, said the outcome of the election would not stop people from learning about what he called the "growing controversy" over evolution. "Efforts to censor that aren't going to work," he said.
Though proponents of Kansas' science standards said they had nothing to do with religion, several of the board members who voted for it were vocal religious conservatives who said they were influenced by their faith.
Control of the state school board has seesawed between religious conservatives who question evolution and moderates who say most scientists consider Darwin's finding to now be settled fact. In 1998 a conservative majority won control of the board and issued a policy questioning evolution, only to be ousted in 2000. The new majority reversed the standards.
In 2004, conservatives won the board back, and moderates this year vowed to defeat them yet again.
"In Kansas, we have this tendency to go back and forth," said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, cautioning that any change in the board's tilt could be temporary. "In two years we can have another flip-flop. There's a certain absurdity to it."
The school board has little power and can only recommend curricula to local school districts. Yet the symbolism of questioning evolution has dominated state politics, drawn rebukes from national scientific groups and made Kansas the target of late-night comedians.
The Intelligent Design Network of Shawnee Mission, Kan., held a series of public forums this summer to defend the new science standards. And the Discovery Institute paid for radio ads backing the school board's policy.
The conservative board majority also stirred controversy by hiring an anti-tax lobbyist as the state education commissioner, and by requiring written permission from parents before students could be taught sex education.
Conservative school board members who survived the primaries are not safe yet, analysts said. Although Republicans usually win local elections easily in Kansas, science groups say they will throw their backing to Democrats challenging school board incumbents in November.