New uproar in education erupts

Conservative commissioner's credentials questioned

? The selection of Bob Corkins, a Lawrence man, to be the state’s new education commissioner prompted sputtering dismay or disbelief from some key policymakers.

“I almost ran off the road when I heard it,” Senate Education Chairwoman Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, said Tuesday after hearing the news.

“Are you serious, really?” Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, said.

“It’s one thing to debate evolution, but it’s another to put Bob Corkins in charge of the department,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.

Those reactions and others followed Corkins’ selection Tuesday to be the top official in the Kansas public school system.

The choice in a 6-4 vote was made by the State Board of Education’s conservative majority. Corkins, a 44-year-old attorney, drew fire because he is best known in Topeka as a conservative political activist who has had no professional background in education.

He currently serves as executive director of two conservative think tanks, and has actively fought against increased school funding before the Legislature and Kansas Supreme Court. He also has supported school vouchers.

Reactions range from shock to approval

“I almost ran off the road when I heard it. I’m very disappointed, very disappointed. …” – Senate Education Chairwoman Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita.

“I can’t think of a worse outcome for the children of Kansas than this absurd decision.” – John Martellaro, the head of Kansas Families United for Public Education

“We need new, innovative ideas in education and Bob has that background. Every once in a while you need to step out of the box and bring in some new ideas. It will still be up to the board.” – Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler.

“Are you serious, really?” – Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.

“It’s one thing to debate evolution, but it’s another to put Bob Corkins in charge of the department. The majority on this board will make us the laughingstock of the whole country.” – Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka

Jumping ship

Some predicted Corkin’s hiring would launch an exodus from the education department.

“There are going to be some people here abandon ship out of indignation and outrage,” board member Bill Wagnon, a Democrat from Topeka, said. “We’re going to have a lot of anarchy in the field.”

Corkins conceded he didn’t bring the traditional background to the job, but said his experience as a lawyer and researcher would serve the board well.

“I have very valuable skills that the board has need of,” Corkins said. “I’ve earned a reputation for being fair-minded.”

Corkins will succeed Andy Tompkins, who resigned earlier this year and is now an associate professor at Kansas University. Final details of Corkins’ contract had not been worked out, but board officials said Corkins would probably earn approximately $140,000 per year.

Corkins beat out four other finalists: Milt Dougherty, superintendent of the Little River school district; Daniel Harden, an education professor at Washburn University; Alexa Posny, the current deputy education commissioner; and Kurt Steinhaus, deputy cabinet secretary for education in New Mexico.

Experience lacking

Aside from his conservative activism, Corkins’ critics said he has no experience managing a large group of people nor dealing with a wide range of constituencies.

The Kansas Department of Education administers a $3 billion system of 450,000 students and tens of thousands of teachers spread over the state’s small-, medium- and large-school districts. School funding makes up half of the state budget and has become the most hard-fought issue before the Legislature.

But Board Chairman Steve Abrams, a Republican from Arkansas City, said Corkins was the best candidate “in trying to achieve a vision for further Kansas education.”

Abrams added, “This is not about destroying public education. It is about improving public education.”

Asked to name an achievement by Corkins, Abrams said Corkins had been able to accomplish what his think tank boards asked him to do.

Such as?

“You probably ought to talk with his employers,” Abrams said.

School finance

Wagnon described Corkins as a divisive figure within the Legislature, especially during the recent round of court decisions on schools.

During the past year, the Kansas Supreme Court declared that the school funding system unconstitutionally shortchanged students and ordered spending increases that Corkins opposed.

“They have appointed someone who not only doesn’t have any educational background, but is patently anti-education,” Hensley said, noting Corkins’ work against school funding increases.

Bob Corkins

Age: 44. Born Jan. 25, 1961.

Hometown: Lawrence. Born in Hutchinson.

Education: Graduated Hutchinson High School, 1979; bachelor’s degree in speech, with a minor in journalism, University of Northern Iowa, 1983; law degree, Kansas University, 1989.

Career: Worked for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 1989-98, including as director of taxation; executive director, Kansas Public Policy Institute, a think tank now called the Flint Hills Center, based in Wichita, 1998-2001; executive director, the Freestate Center for Liberty Studies and Kansas Legislative Education and Research, conservative think tanks, 2001 to present; named Kansas education commissioner, 2005.

Personal: He and his wife, Nancy, a pharmacist, have two sons.

The Legislature eventually increased school funding by approximately $290 million.

“I sense in listening to him being interviewed, he was really running for board attorney instead of board commissioner. His whole focus was to give us legal advice on how to deal essentially with school finance,” Wagnon said.

Despite the division on the board, Corkins said he would try to work with all groups.

“I’ll be a commissioner for all board members,” he said.

The board has been deeply divided over the teaching of evolution, sex education and board members’ travel expenses.

Asked to comment on Corkins’ selection, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius wished Corkins well but mentioned Hurricane Katrina and the federal government’s slow response.

“America learned many lessons. One of the most important is: Government officials heading important agencies must have the proper experience and background to handle the task at hand,” she said.

Controversial process

The process that led to Corkins’ appointment was surrounded by controversy.

Moderates alleged the conservative majority had rigged the hiring process to select someone who would pursue a politically conservative agenda.

During the application process, conservative board members had increased the weight given to applicants for civic, political and business experience.

After that decision, the National Association of State Boards of Education, which had been hired to help with the search, dropped out of the process.

In June, the board tried to hire a replacement for Tompkins and had narrowed the search to two people, including Posny, but failed to reach agreement. It then decided to reopen the application process.

Other candidates for commissioner

The State Board of Education on Tuesday picked Bob Corkins from among five candidates for education commissioner.

The other candidates were:

¢ Milt Dougherty, superintendent for nine years of Little River school district in Rice County with an enrollment of about 300 students. He has been a teacher and administrator for 18 years. He has experience in technology, serving as a consultant for Sprint and Apple.

¢ G. Daniel Harden, education professor at Washburn University for 18 years. He teaches graduate courses in leadership, law and philosophy of education. Harden also is vice president of the Jefferson West school board in Meriden.

¢ Alexa Posny, deputy Kansas education commissioner for learning services. Posny has been with the department since 1999 and was one of the finalists in July. She is an architect of the state’s plan for complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the state’s system for accrediting schools.

¢ Kurt Steinhaus, deputy secretary of education in New Mexico for the past two years. He is responsible for 176 employees and a budget of $2.1 billion. He also was director of student and education programs at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and spent 12 years with the Alamogordo, N.M., public school system.