Topeka Bob Corkins hopes that as he travels the state and speaks to individuals and small groups, the hubbub over his appointment as education commissioner will die down, making his job easier.
But two months into his tenure, he still faces speculation that he'll be fired if the balance of political power on the Kansas State Board of Education changes from its current 6-4 conservative Republican majority.
He said Thursday he can't let that prospect affect him as he runs the Department of Education with 260 employees and an annual budget of more than $3 billion. Next week, he'll present proposals to the board for a limited school voucher program and a change that could create more special charter schools in Kansas.
"I don't let it affect the way I conduct my job today," Corkins said of the controversy surrounding him, during an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. "All I can do is fulfill my responsibilities in as conscientious and thoughtful way as that I possibly can."
Corkins is Kansas' first top school administrator in more than 80 years who didn't serve as a local superintendent first. Before the board hired him in October, he had run two one-man conservative research organizations and was best known among educators for opposing large increases in education funding and for advocating vouchers.
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Those positions have worried superintendents and the board's less conservative board members.
Board member Sue Gamble, a Shawnee Republican, said she isn't out to get rid of Corkins. But she said she and Corkins disagree on almost every educational issue.
"I just don't see him changing his ideology stripes," Gamble told the AP. "I will give him every opportunity to become an advocate for public education."
Corkins contends he and board members are working on improving educational opportunities for children, particularly those from low-income families or those in special education.
"I certainly wouldn't say to know me is to love me," he said. "But as I get around the state and talk to people on an individual basis or in small groups - meet with them in a reasonable manner and let them appreciate the fact that I'm approaching all these issues from an intelligent perspective and that I welcome a reasonable, civil debate on everything - then I'm gaining more respect and the job's getting easier."
He's pushing state "scholarships" of about $5,600 for such children and advocating a change that will allow the state board to approve less-regulated charter schools with innovative programs, even if local boards won't.
"I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an expert in pedagogy, in what the most effective educational techniques are," he said. "That is one of the reasons why I'm a strong supporter for choice and other options, so that different teaching techniques may be available."
He added: "I would like to see the Kansas Department of Education be the best state agency, that we're recognized as the best-run, most forward-thinking agency and having the best employees."
As for the department seeing big changes on his watch, Corkins said most state agencies undergo a "periodic upheaval." He said often after elections, a new governor and new cabinet secretaries bring new philosophies and priorities to state agencies.
"They all go through it," he said. "The Department of Ed hasn't for a very, very long time."