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Archive for Thursday, October 6, 2005

Political choice

The qualifications the state’s new commissioner of education brings to the job don’t bode well for the educational future of Kansas youngsters.

October 6, 2005

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It is almost incomprehensible that the Kansas State Board of Education would decide that experience in the field of education wasn't a necessary qualification for the person who will oversee the operation of the state's public schools.

And yet, that is exactly what six members of the state's 10-member school board concluded Tuesday when they voted to hire Bob Corkins, a 44-year-old Lawrence man, as state commissioner of education.

About the only way to explain their action is to conclude that the six conservative members of the state school board are more concerned with promoting a political agenda than with educating Kansas youngsters.

Corkins was the only finalist for the commissioner's job who had no experience in educational administration. He is an attorney who has worked as a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the conservative think tank now known as the Flint Hills Center. He currently leads two other conservative think tanks in the state. Corkins has actively opposed increased school funding and favors school vouchers, a move many experts believe will undermine public education.

Is there any question what qualification the six school board members considered most important? They weren't looking for someone who knows how to educate children; they were looking for someone who would push their conservative agenda. It's all about politics.

Board Chairman Steve Abrams reportedly defended Corkins as someone who could heal divisions between the board and the Legislature. On the contrary, the selection of a conservative lobbyist as the state's education commissioner will only inflame and solidify the current damaging divisions between moderate and conservative legislators.

That became clear through some of the immediate reactions from Democrats and moderate Republicans to the choice of Corkins. "I almost ran off the road when I heard it," said Sen. Jean Schodorf, the Wichita Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "Are you serious, really?" asked Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt. So much for unity.

Even House Speaker Doug Mays, who has solid conservative credentials conceded that "It's going to be a real challenge for him (Corkins) to deal with the education community. I think they've come to expect that the position will be filled by a superintendent or someone from the education community."

As well they should. Corkins said his law degree and experience in leading nonprofit organizations should serve him well in the commissioner's post. But dealing with federal mandates, teacher certification, student achievement and the myriad other facets of public education is a complex and specialized field. The Department of Education oversees a $3 billion system that serves 450,000 Kansas youngsters. This is no small operation.

But rather than hire someone who knows education, the six conservative board members have hired someone who knows politics, someone who can push their conservative agenda with state legislators.

How can they justify such a move? They don't have to. The conservatives have six votes on a 10-member board. That's all that matters. The people of Kansas elected them, and now all of us - and the children of Kansas - must live with the consequences.

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