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Published in Print: December 14, 2005, as Kansas’ New Schools Chief Sparks Conflict

Kansas’ New Schools Chief Sparks Conflict

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Protracted battles over evolution, sex education, and school financing in Kansas have generated plenty of headlines in the Sunflower State over the past year.

Now, the state school board has stirred fresh controversy by its hiring of conservative policy advocate Bob L. Corkins as the state’s new commissioner of education, rejecting protests about his lack of experience in education. Mr. Corkins, 44, was appointed in October by a 6-4 vote board. The board’s conservative majority supported the choice; moderates on the board opposed it.

“When you hire someone as the commissioner of education, the title reflects what you think that person’s background is,” said Janet Waugh, who voted against Mr. Corkins.

Mr. Corkins’ background includes no direct experience working in public schools. By contrast, the other candidates for the job included a district superintendent, a professor of education, the state’s deputy commissioner of education, and New Mexico’s deputy cabinet secretary of education.

Supporters of Mr. Corkins say he brings other relevant experience to the job.

For the past four years, he was the executive director of Kansas Legislative Education and Research Inc. and the Freestate Center for Liberty Studies, nonprofit organizations that promote reduced taxes, limited government, and more efficient school spending. As a lawyer for the Kansas Taxpayers Network, an organization based in Wichita, Kan., that champions low taxes, Mr. Corkins wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in 2004 in the state’s school financing case in which he argued for better allocation of state funds among districts, rather than increasing aid overall.

He will make $140,000 a year leading the 500,000-student state school system. His predecessor, Andy Tompkins, who served as commissioner for nine years, earned $141,400 when he retired this past July.

“The board is hiring a lobbyist who has been outspoken against public education,” said Sue Gamble, another state board member who opposed Mr. Corkins.

But Steve Abrams, the chairman of the board and a supporter of the new commissioner, argues that Mr. Corkins was not hired to be a teacher or a school administrator, but to be the manager of the education department, a job for which his work experience has prepared him.

State Sen. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican and a vocal supporter of the new chief, agrees.

“He brings to the position a wealth of experience: a background running a small business … a reputation as a leading education budget expert, his firsthand knowledge of the legislative process for nearly a decade, [and] his legal expertise per education lawsuits,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Corkins graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls with a bachelor’s degree in speech and a minor in journalism, and earned a law degree from the University of Kansas School of Law in Lawrence. He did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story.

If Mr. Corkins’ first weeks in his new position are a sign of things to come, his appointment is the beginning of a contentious tenure.

Voucher Plans

In a statement released Dec. 7, Mr. Corkins’ transition team recommended increasing funding for charter schools and allowing applicants rejected by local school boards to appeal to the state board. It also suggested creating a state voucher program for students at risk of academic failure and those with disabilities—ideas that Mr. Corkins and the board’s majority members have supported publicly.

Board members expect that the issues will be on the agenda at their Dec. 13-14 meeting.

“The board has a goal of finding ways to redesign education delivery in Kansas,” Mr. Abrams said. “Towards that end, it would be appropriate to ask about charters and vouchers.”

Others in the Kansas education community, however, doubt that the charter and voucher discussion will go far.

Christy Levings, the president of the Kansas National Education Association, says the fact that Kansas has only 26 charter schools, most of which are alternative high schools, shows that Kansans are not enthusiastic about the independent public schools.

“The question is, is there a problem that [Mr. Corkins] is proposing a solution to” by promoting charters and vouchers, she said. “People aren’t clamoring to start charters, and they aren’t clamoring for voucher support.”

Sen. Jean Schodorf, the Republican who chairs the education committee of the Kansas Senate, doesn’t see the charter and voucher discussion making it out of the board meetings.

“I really don’t think it has any chance of going anywhere” in the legislature, she said. “I’m going to fight against it.”

Employee Interviews

Still, Mr. Corkins’ transition team interviewed 100 of the roughly 250 employees at the state education department, asking them, among other questions, about their views on school choice.

Employees got a memo saying the transition team would ask them “general questions” including: “What is your general reaction to school choice, charter schools, and parental empowerment? How would advances of state policy in this direction affect your responsibilities at [the department]?”

The interviews were voluntary, and the memo assured employees that “all responses to transition interviews will be kept anonymous.”

Ms. Levings of the teachers’ union said she wondered why the 11-member transition team included that line. “Why would they have to worry about their answers being anonymous in an open-records society?” she said.

And Sen. Schodorf called the interviews “intimidating and demoralizing to staff.”

Mr. Abrams, the state board chairman, defended the interviews. “I think it’s appropriate for any new department head to interview employees” about how the department has been functioning, he said.

Ms. Levings noted that Mr. Corkins has vowed to make the education department “lean and mean.”

But the message that state education agency employees are getting from the interviews, she said, is “ ‘Oh, and by the way, we want to know about your philosophy while we’re doing this.’ ”

PHOTO: The naming of conservative policy advocate Bob L. Corkins as Kansas schools chief is sparking fresh controversy in a state already roiled over evolution and other issues.
—Orlin Wagner/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 15, Pages 18,20

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