Topeka — Having watched him argue in recent years against increased education funding, superintendents and other educators now must deal with Bob Corkins as the state's new education commissioner.
Many of them have questions for Corkins, who was hired Tuesday by the State Board of Education. Most would like to know how he intends to help them close student achievement gaps, comply with state requirements for accountability and meet federal mandates.
"I've not heard any discussion about what this person plans to do with all the issues that confront us," said Supt. Winston Brooks, of Wichita, the state's largest school district.
Corkins, 44, was hired Tuesday on a 6-4 vote by the state board's conservative majority.
In addition to spending limits, Corkins has pushed for school vouchers, arguing competition will improve the entire system and give parents more choice in their children's education.
Critics note that Corkins has no professional education background and has been the executive director of two conservative think tanks, taking positions deemed anti-education by people in the system he now administers.
"I don't know what his motives are, but the track record is not very good," said Independence Supt. Chuck Schmidt. "It just makes me question what our state school board is doing. I'm going to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, but I'm very concerned."
Corkins knows there are skeptics. "There are people who aren't familiar with me, personally, with my reputation, with all of my background, so it doesn't surprise me that they'd make some of the remarks that they have," he said. "I think it's incumbent on me to do the best job I can and show them, as I persuaded the board, that I'm perfectly capable of handling this - and in an effective manner."
Hays teachers already were asking Supt. Fred Kaufman what Corkins' hiring means.
Kaufman said: "We'll work to make sure it means as little as possible to the district."
Previous commissioners have been strong advocates for public schools, he said, working to improve the quality of education for all children.
"There's nothing in this man's background to suggest that's what he'll be," Kaufman said.
Corkins said the board was open-minded in conducting its search, following a national trend of big districts hiring outsiders. One outsider, Doug Sears, the current dean of the Boston University School of Education, agreed.
Sears, a U.S. diplomat to Switzerland and the Philippines before becoming superintendent of the Chelsea, Mass., school district, said outsiders can offer a new perspective to an entrenched system that often is slow to change.
"Education is not an area that has been done well," Sears said. "We could do better."
He said school choice can force more efficient use of resources and improve student achievement. But Sears added that Corkins would be wise to listen and learn from those already in the field.
"They should give him a chance," Sears said.