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Archive for Sunday, June 19, 2005

Optimist wanted

The belief that things will get better would seem to be a top qualification for applicants to become the state’s new commissioner of education.

June 19, 2005

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You just have to wonder who would want to be the Kansas commissioner of education right now.

A story in Thursday's Journal-World indicates at least four people - finalists being interviewed by the Kansas State Board of Education - must be willing to take on the job. But other stories throughout the same newspaper detailing the various controversies now gripping the state's Education Department are enough to make most people ask why anyone would apply to lead that agency. On the other hand, consider the opportunities to make a positive contribution.

All three branches of state government are weighing in on education funding. The Kansas Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to come up with an additional $143 million in school funding by the end of the month. The governor strongly recommends that legislators take advantage of their special session, which starts Wednesday, to approve additional state gaming to raise money for education. The House speaker says that's not likely.

In the meantime, Atty. Gen. Phill Kline is offering advice to lawmakers on how they can defy the court order but still keep the schools running. Among his suggestions are to have the Legislature take over from the State Board of Education responsibility for distributing aid to the state's 301 school districts. Such a move would hardly enhance the role of the commissioner or the state board.

If the controversy swirling around the state Education Department isn't enough, the state board of education also is mired in internal strife. Conservative and moderate members of the board seem unable to agree on anything.

The board has spent months hashing out new science standards that likely will de-emphasize the teaching of evolution, but additional reviews ordered by Board Chairman Steve Abrams apparently will put off a vote on the matter until at least August. Board discussions earlier this week on health standards seem likely to spur the same kind of heated debate on the board over how schools should handle sex education.

Interactions among board members are becoming increasingly personal and accusatory. Particular attention has been focused on board member Connie Morris in the past week because of her decisions to bill the taxpayers for a $339-a-night hotel room she occupied during a recent conference in Miami and to promote what some observers see as a political agenda in a newsletter she mailed, on the state's tab, to her constituents.

Also on the front page of Thursday's Journal-World was a story about the large number of local teachers leaving the field, many of them because they saw no hope of receiving the kind of monetary rewards and respect they had hoped for as teachers. That outmigration isn't just a Lawrence problem, and maintaining a high quality teacher pool in Kansas will be an ongoing challenge.

We know nothing about the qualifications of the four finalists for the state's top public schools job. Three of them are from Kansas and surely are well aware of the pressures of the job recently vacated by Andy Tompkins, who has joined the Kansas University faculty. Perhaps they are attracted by the opportunity for a talented, visionary educational leader to move into this position and help make the state a national leader in K-12 education.

One of the greatest assets Tompkins brought to the job he held longer than any previous education commissioner was his optimism and positive attitude. It seems any applicant willing to tackle the many challenges currently facing the state's Education Department would have to have both of the qualities in abundance.

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