School & District Management

Kansas’ New Schools Chief Sparks Conflict

By Jessica L. Tonn — December 13, 2005 5 min read

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.’ ”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion 42 Percent of Principals Want to Leave Their Position. Will You Let Them?
There are specific reasons leaders cite for reasons they want to leave their positions. What can we do about it? Do we care?
7 min read
42% of Principals are considering leaving their position. Are you one of them?
42% of Principals are considering leaving their position. Are you one of them?
Shutterstock
School & District Management Is the Assistant Principal the Most Overlooked, Undervalued Person at School?
A new research review on assistant principals finds that the role is undefined and that support for these school leaders is inconsistent.
7 min read
 teachers and leaders looking around for direction
Mykyta Dolmatov/iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Opinion Pandemic Recovery Will Be Complex. We’ll Need the Best School Leaders
To face the education challenges of today and tomorrow, we must invest in the principal pipeline, writes Michael J. Petrilli.
Michael J. Petrilli
4 min read
Leader pointing hand forward, directing boat forward through corona virus crisis
iStock / Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Opinion The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My 'Tribe'
A Black school leader reflects on the hardest year of her professional life.
Reba Y. Hodge
4 min read
new growth on a bare tree
Vanessa Solis/Education Week & Getty Images