State workers being quizzed on vouchers

Controversial commissioner accused of putting employees in tough spot

? New Kansas Education Commissioner Bob Corkins’ transition team has been asking State Department of Education employees whether they support private school vouchers.

In private interviews with employees, the transition team, appointed by Corkins after he was hired last month, has asked, “What is your general reaction to school choice, charter schools and parental empowerment?”

Some department employees confirmed to the Journal-World that they had been asked the question but asked to remain anonymous.

Christy Levings, president of the Kansas-National Education Assn., said the question was unfair.

“It’s a difficult position to put state employees in,” Levings said because Corkins is a known supporter of vouchers, which allows the use of state tax dollars to send students to private schools.

Corkins has said vouchers will improve public schools by providing competition and more choices for parents.

Corkins, and his transitional chief, Dan Harden, did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the voucher questions being put to employees.

State Board of Education member Kenneth Willard, a Republican from Hutchinson, said he hadn’t heard of such questioning. He said he didn’t think it would be inappropriate to ask the question even though the board has not taken an official position on vouchers.

Board member Connie Morris, a Republican from St. Francis, said education department employees shouldn’t feel threatened if they don’t support vouchers.

“Since the board and department of education are addressing numerous issues, I hardly believe a difference of opinion on one of many projects would cause a colleague concern for their position,” Morris said.

The KNEA and several other school groups oppose vouchers, saying it will rob funds from public schools and programs that are helping students.

Levings said the questioning of state employees about vouchers is part of an all-out blitz for a voucher program from Corkins and his 6-4 majority on the education board.

“There is obviously an agenda and it’s ‘we have six votes on the board and will run it as hard and fast as we can,'” Levings said.

That assessment was based on Corkins’ public statements since his hiring last month and the people he has brought around him, she said.

Corkins went on a 12-city tour this week in western Kansas in which he promoted vouchers and charter schools, which are schools that operate independently of some state rules.

Interviews with people who attended the meetings said Corkins wasn’t there to listen to the local concerns.

Corkins was hired by the 6-4 majority to the $140,000-per-year job even though he had no professional educational experience. He had been head of a think tank that worked against public schools.

After his appointment to the commissioner post, he hired Harden, a conservative professor at Washburn University, to lead his transition effort.

On Thursday, he announced the hiring of David Awbrey as communications director for the education agency for $76,000 per year. Awbrey, a former editorial page editor for The Wichita Eagle, often criticized public schools for resisting change.