Whether he did it for the good of the state or simply to avoid being fired, Robert Corkins did the state a favor by resigning last week as the Kansas commissioner of education.
As noted in the Journal-World story on the resignation, Corkins probably saw "the writing on the wall" after recent elections that altered the political makeup of the Kansas State Board of Education. Two of the conservative members who favored his hiring last year were replaced by moderate members in elections earlier this month, giving moderates a 6-4 majority on the board and making it highly likely that the controversial education commissioner would be asked to leave when the new board is seated in January.
Corkins' exit now will allow the board to begin its new term with a clean slate. Dale Dennis, a long-time, trusted member of the Education Department staff will set a stable course as interim commissioner, allowing board members to move ahead with efforts to seek a new commissioner and set their priorities for the next two years.
The current board accepted Corkins' resignation on a curious 7-3 vote, with two moderate members of the board voting against the action. In later comments, Janet Waugh of Kansas City said she voted against the motion because she didn't agree with adding "with regret" to the board's acceptance. Another moderate member, Carol Rupe of Wichita, said she voted "no" because she opposed the $11,000 severance package that was being approved for Corkins.
While Rupe has a point that the severance package was generous for a commission who had served for just over a year, the $11,000 seems little enough to allow the board to quickly move forward from the Corkins era.
Hiring another commissioner, of course, should be the top priority when the new board convenes. Board members have promised to do a nationwide search to fill the job. Given the outcry from both state officials and the public at Corkins' hiring, the board's new majority seems certain to put a higher priority on the new commissioner's experience as an educator and school administrator. Corkins had no experience in either area and appeared to have been hired more on the basis of his political philosophy than on his educational credentials.
The new board and its moderate majority is expected to reconsider several decisions of the current board, including the science standards that de-emphasize evolution and a policy to require written permission from parents for their children to take sex education classes. Although election results indicate many Kansans want those policies reviewed, it's unfortunate that the state board and the policies it sets have been in such a state of flux for almost a decade.
The board's philosophical shifts have opened the door to discussions of filling the board by appointment rather than election or having an elected board that serves only an advisory role. Either move would require amending the Kansas Constitution, and Kansas voters are likely to balk at giving up their direct control over the board's membership, but unless the board can be a more stable influence on the state's K-12 schools, talk of change is unlikely to subside.
The return of a moderate majority to the state board has raised hopes among many across the state that the Education Department will be able to return to a more professional operation that is focused more on education than on political agendas. Such a move would go a long way to restoring Kansans' faith in the oversight of their public schools.