Topeka — A former anti-tax lobbyist took the reins of the state's school system Wednesday but would not give a clue which side he intends to take in the ongoing war over school funding.
"A visit I need to have is with staff attorneys," Bob Corkins said Wednesday as he settled into his new office at the Kansas State Department of Education and new $140,000-per-year job. "Until then, it would be inappropriate for me to comment."
His comments were made during a brief interview a day after he was selected by the 6-4 conservative majority on the State Board of Education.
The vote for Corkins, 44, of Lawrence, hit a raw nerve with school advocates, moderate Republicans and Democrats. They criticized the board's conservatives for appointing an ideologue with no background in education.
"I do not believe this gentleman is qualified to hold the position he's been hired to fill," said Sue Gamble, a moderate Republican board member from Shawnee Mission.
Corkins said he expected the fallout, but was not going to back off his conservative credentials.
"It's not unexpected," he said of the criticism. "But it is nothing I've ever shied away from before."
As if to emphasize that point, Corkins said he was putting together a transition team that will include Daniel Harden, a Washburn University education professor, whose Web site declares "Traditional Education in the Year of Our Lord 2005" and provides links to numerous conservative think tanks. Harden also had been one of the finalists for the education commissioner post; he could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Think tank leader
Corkins replaces Andy Tompkins, a highly regarded commissioner who resigned earlier this year and is now an associate professor at Kansas University. Corkins goes from being the sole staffer of two conservative think tanks to leading an agency with 212 employees that helps administer a $3 billion public school system with approximately 450,000 students and 40,000 teachers.
Corkins was leading the think tanks - Kansas Legislative Education and Research Inc., commonly referred to as KLEAR, and Freestate Center for Liberty Studies - when he applied for the commissioner's job.
He had no staff at either organization and operated out of a room on the second floor of a law office across the street from the Capitol. KLEAR was supported by corporate donations and membership dues from 72 legislators; Freestate was supported by donors, he said.
State Sen. Peggy Palmer, a conservative Republican from Augusta who founded KLEAR, said Corkins will make a great education commissioner.
"I think the education community will be pleasantly surprised," Palmer said. "They're going to find out that Bob is non-controversial and will put the children first."
Legislators paid $400 per year to become members of KLEAR and receive advice from Corkins on whether proposed legislation abided by the group's principals of limited government - free enterprise, individual liberty and family values - Palmer said.
"He probably knows education better than most folks," she said.
But Gamble was skeptical.
"I'm struck that the board has, in the past, been quite critical of the role of lobbyists in the legislative process and yet they've seen fit to hire one," Gamble said.
Corkins jumps into the education profession during a particularly contentious time.
One issue confronting state educators are the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires increased testing and annual academic progress. Corkins said he was no fan of that law and would welcome an attempt by the board to seek a waiver from its requirements, as some states have discussed.
And the school finance issue remains. Earlier this year, the Kansas Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiff school districts and issued orders that resulted in a $290 million funding increase this year; the issue is expected to return to the front burner during the 2006 legislative session starting in January.
Corkins said the State Board of Education remains a defendant in the lawsuit that was brought by school districts, which claimed the education finance system shortchanged minorities and disabled students.
"Our fundamental role and purpose is defined by that," he said.