Walt Chappell, useful dissident

The Wichita Eagle has run a short profile of Walt Chappell, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education from Wichita. It’s a fairly negative piece, stating that “board members and education leaders say he’s ineffective because he’s not a team player.”

Might “not a team player” simply mean that he’s a dissident? If so, Kansans should be grateful for having a board member who is not a “team player.” Why is that? The progress of science and knowledge, as Thomas Kuhn tells us,  often comes through the work of dissidents who challenge conventional wisdom. Sometimes a dissident is simply a flake, but sometimes, the criticism becomes the new conventional wisdom as old ideas are discredited and new ones adopted.

The hook for the Eagle story is the board’s refusal to reimburse Chappell for a speech he gave to a Republican group in Wichita.

The board certainly has a strange theory for how its members ought to behave:

He should be allowed to say anything he wants whenever he wants, [SBOE member Sally] Cauble said, as long as taxpayers don’t fund it and his speeches as a board member follow what the board has discussed or decided on.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is on the state school board, we don’t speak our own mind when we speak as a board member,” she said, adding she only asks for travel expenses for events where she simply provides information.

Does anyone else see a contradiction in what Cauble said?

It’s time for some free exchange of ideas. Does anyone believe that Speaker Mike O’Neal reflects the views of the entire Kansas House of Representatives? Many times, he doesn’t even speak for all his fellow Republicans. If SBOE policy reflects what Cauble said, it ought to be changed. As long as a member gives a disclaimer at the beginning of a public speech–“What I’m going to say here does not necessarily reflect the views of the Kansas State Board of Education”–that should suffice.

The Eagle quotes board member Dale Dennis as saying that Chappell talks too long at board meetings. Perhaps he does, though “too long” may be a matter of personal taste. What turns some people into critics of Chappell, I suspect, is not the length of his remarks at board meetings, but the fact that he diverges from board orthodoxy. In the words of the Eagle, Chappell supports the “controversial ideas” of “changing teacher tenure laws, performance-based teacher pay raises and a $1,000 fee for students who can’t prove they’re in the country legally.”

Controversial? Perhaps. Beyond the pale? Not at all. Now, I don’t think that levying fees on illegal immigrants would pass constitutional muster, given past rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On the other hand, the idea of changing tenure laws has bipartisan (if not necessarily widespread) support. This year, for example, both the Republican legislature of Florida and the Democratic legislature of Colorado enacted tenure reform. (In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who is now running for the U.S. Senate as an independent, vetoed the bill.)

Knowledge advances–as does society–when talk turns to controversy. Bring on the debates!

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