July 20, 2012, by Alex Smith

Religion, science and public education: a cautionary tale

I arrived last Monday (9 July) in Kansas City to begin a month of fieldwork in support of my Leverhulme research on religion and science debates in the USA.  In particular, I am interested in whether these debates are having an impact on the Kansas Republican Party primary races for the state legislature and State Board of Education.

Kansas is a ‘Red’ Republican State currently led by one of America’s most conservative governors, former US Senator Sam Brownback. A national leader of the Christian Right, he ticks all the conservative boxes on the so-called ‘hot button’ issues: abortion, embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage, the teaching of Intelligent Design (Creationism) in the high school science curriculum, and much more.

In the Kansas House of Representatives, a large conservative Republican majority supports his far-Right agenda of radical tax cuts and hostility to Federal Government programs, particularly in health care and other areas of social policy.

However, Governor Brownback has been unable to rely on the support of the state senate, which is led by a group of moderate Republicans who organise, informally, with the Democrats to obstruct the (sizeable) conservative GOP minority in their own ranks.

Kansas and public education

One of the key battlegrounds between moderate Republicans and their conservative opponents is over the issue of public education.  Much like the Scots in the UK, Kansans boast having built one of the best publicly funded education systems in the world.

Since 1859, the right of all Kansans to good-quality public education has been enshrined the state constitution. It is true that the state is home to some of America’s very best schools, especially in affluent Johnson County, which forms part of the greater Kansas City metropolitan area.

Kansas is also home to some of the nation’s leading public research universities, including the University of Kansas (KU) and its prestigious Medical Center. KU Med hosts a research institute that recently joined an elite network of 67 cancer research centers to achieve recognition from the National Cancer Institute. This achievement will help consolidate KU’s position as an international leader in biomedical research and bring huge economic benefits to the state.

Historically, the Kansas public education system is very much a legacy of Republican lawmakers who believed that good quality education provided the surest path from poverty to prosperity. For that reason, the public schools and universities of Kansas have been amongst the most affordable in the United States, though that is now almost certain to change.

Brownback’s radical tax cuts – championed by the billionaire Koch brothers based in Wichita and the right-wing Political Action Committees (‘PACs’), like Americans for Prosperity, which they fund – now endanger public funding for education in Kansas.

Over the last week, many Kansans have expressed to me their anxieties about the future of local schools and the price their children and grandchildren will have to pay for a college education as universities raise their tuition fees.

Science education for all

The re-emergence of anti-science religious conservatives who support the teaching of Intelligent Design in high school biology classes further fuels these anxieties. Many moderate Kansans worry that if the Creationists seize control of the Kansas State Board of Education this year – as they did in the early 2000s – national newspapers and other media outlets will ridicule the state’s education system.

They also worry that high school graduates interested in pursuing a career in medicine and science at selective universities elsewhere in the country will be at a competitive disadvantage if the Kansas high school science curriculum does not command the respect of its peers.

In a political climate where religious conservatives continue to challenge public funding for controversial science like embryonic stem cell research – as they are in the European Parliament, about which I also recently blogged – this could have a disastrous impact on educational standards and science funding in Kansas.

For political moderates, supporting public education and promoting good-quality science education and research are two issues that go hand-in-hand. I heard this view expressed eloquently by the President of Kansas Citizens for Science – a moderate Republican – during discussion following a presentation I delivered to a science café they hosted in Johnson County last week.

Jeff Tamblyn – one of the filmmakers behind the award-winning documentary ‘Kansas vs. Darwin’ on the so-called ‘evolution hearings’ that the Kansas State Board of Education, then controlled by the Christian Right, organized in 2005 – was there too. A former stage actor and theatre major from college, he told me afterwards of his passion for science even though he was, in his own words, ‘crap at it’.

Inspired by a teacher at high school who taught him the value of the scientific method in building an evidence base to test hypotheses and solve problems, he explained how investing in good-quality science education for all – and not just an academically gifted elite able to afford a college education – enables everyone to feel that they have a collective stake in science, and that science is a public good.

Having fought in the front lines of America’s so-called culture wars, many pro-science Kansans agree. That is one reason why support for public education is a vote-winner in many Kansas communities.

A cautionary tale

Contemporary Kansas is a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

In the last two years in the UK, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government has cut funding for university teaching by 82% and trebled tuition fees for students. In addition, the Government continues to approve the creation of so-called ‘free schools’ – freed, that is, from local government control.

Many of my moderate Republican contacts would counsel against initiatives, like these, that undermine both the value of public education and an understanding of science as a public good.

That is why so many moderate Republicans are determined to stand up to Governor Brownback and embrace public schools, even if it puts them on a collision course with the Christian Right and his conservative backers.


Dr Alex Smith is a Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Warwick. He is the Project Leader responsible for ‘Science, religion and the making of publics in the UK and the USA’.

Image: A yard sign promoting public education as an issue in the Kansas Republican Party primary on 7 August


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