Topeka The search for an anti-Corkins has begun.
Education Commissioner Bob Corkins resigned last month after 13 tumultuous months on the job, cleaning out his office the day before Thanksgiving. His departure saved the Kansas State Board of Education the effort of firing him when two new, less conservative members take office Jan. 8.
There was little doubt Corkins would be fired after power slipped away from the 6-4 conservative Republican majority that hired him, unless he resigned first. The four board members who opposed his appointment continued to criticize his work, and many educators, including classroom teachers, thought him a poor choice.
Corkins didn't have any experience running a school district or even a school before he was hired, and he previously had lobbied against large increases in funding for education. He supported vouchers and sought to increase the number of charter schools, which operate under reduced regulations.
The new choice isn't likely to be anywhere near the jaw-dropper Corkins' appointment was.
"It needs to be a person who comes in with some definite credibility," said Tom Trigg, superintendent of the Blue Valley district in Johnson County. "The person is going to need to have an education background."
Met with hostility
Corkins was the state's first top schools administrator in more than 80 years not to have served as a local superintendent. He ran two small conservative think tanks before he took the job.
He replaced Andy Tompkins, who left after nine years for a teaching position at Kansas University. Tompkins enjoyed a strong national reputation among educators; Gov. Kathleen Sebelius called him a "superstar" in his profession.
But Corkins' lack of education experience can't explain the depth of hostility he faced or the stunned response to his appointment from prominent legislators. When told the news in October 2005, Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, said, "Are you serious, really?"
To many educators, Corkins came from the enemy camp: the conservative bloc in society that sustains a vibrant home-school movement and complains about the supposedly too-secular values being taught in public schools.
To his critics, it was as if someone who knew next-to-nothing about football and actually hated the sport had been hired to run the National Football League.
"From the very beginning, he appeared to be someone who had solutions looking for a problem," said board member Sue Gamble, a moderate Shawnee Republican who opposed Corkins' hiring.
Gamble said Corkins' ideas all seemed based on an assumption that Kansas' public school system was struggling.
But board member Ken Willard, a conservative Hutchinson Republican who voted to hire Corkins, said its majority saw a need to address specific, serious problems and wanted a "visionary leader."
"We were trying to do some innovative things to address the at-risk population, address the achievement gap, address the problem of high school dropouts and the flights form public schools," he said. "Whether or not we were successful with the initial efforts, we certainly raised some issues that need to be discussed."
As an example, Willard cited the state's receipt of a $10 million federal grant to help with the development of new charter schools.
Even some people who weren't supporters of Corkins have concerns about a new commissioner being a status quo administrator.
Among them is Little River Superintendent Milt Dougherty, who said employers constantly express concerns to him that too many students are leaving school without the skills they'll need to get good jobs in a globally competitive economy.
His prediction: The new commissioner will be from Kansas, "an educator well-accepted by the educational establishment, upbeat, outgoing, a cheerleader, who maybe talks a little about change and innovation but really isn't going to get serious about it."
"The problem is if you get someone who is accepted by the education establishment, they're probably pretty much status quo," he said. "If you get somebody who's not status quo, then they're not accepted by the education establishment."
Trigg disagreed, saying it's possible to combine a strong education background and a quest for innovation.
"We need somebody who will promote the good things that are happening across the state and at the same time not stop there with the status quo," he said.