Topeka — New Education Commissioner Bob Corkins on Wednesday tried to ease fears among Kansas school superintendents about his conservative activism and lack of experience.
But after failing to answer basic questions and repeatedly voicing support for "choice and competition" in public schools, some superintendents were not pleased.
"I was real disappointed that he doesn't seem prepared for the job," said Wichita school Supt. Winston Brooks.
More than 60 school district leaders from across the state met with Corkins as part of the monthly meeting of the Council of Superintendents.
Corkins, 44, of Lawrence, was picked by the conservative majority on the State Board of Education to become education commissioner at a salary of $140,000 per year.
The appointment has caused shock waves in Kansas politics.
The position has traditionally been held by someone with experience in the education profession. Corkins, however, has no background in education nor in managing a large number of employees. He also supports school vouchers and has been lobbying against increased school funding during the past several years in one of the most divisive debates in the state.
Earlier this year before the Kansas Supreme Court, Corkins filed a legal brief on behalf of an anti-tax group, arguing against increased funding for schools, citing inefficiencies in school operations.
At Wednesday's meeting, Brooks, the leader of the largest school district in Kansas with 49,000 students, asked Corkins to specify what inefficiencies he meant.
Corkins said he had no specifics, but said the public school system is "a virtual monopoly not subject to natural market motivations."
Brooks said later: "That really concerns me that somebody would be filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court based on perceptions with really no data to support it. I think that is kind of scary."
Corkins said he thought charter schools might be a viable option for helping at-risk students, but under questioning from Brooks, Corkins said he wasn't aware of any in the nation that specifically targeted children in poverty.
Corkins was asked whether he thought all-day kindergarten was a good idea, and he said he didn't know but would defer to experts in the field.
But Corkins told the superintendents that although he had a nontraditional background, he had valuable experience as a lawyer and researcher.
"None of this should cause any angst," he said.
He echoed Education Board Chairman Steve Abrams' remarks that the state should consider exempting itself from the federal No Child Left Behind law, saying the administrative burdens of the law are too much.
As superintendents questioned him about what he wanted to do, at one point Corkins said, "I didn't think this was all going to be about me. I want to hear your concerns."
One superintendent said loudly, "These are our concerns."
Corkins said he planned to assemble a voluntary team to advise him and noted that he needs to find a communications director. The current director, Kathy Toelkes, announced this week she was leaving the education department at the end of the month.