Topeka Former Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker has returned to a job in state government. But even though she's back in her home state after spending a year working in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, you might say she's still a long way from home.
That's because after spending 35 years in the field of education, including her stint as the chief state school officer, she is now working for the Kansas Department of Commerce, a state agency primarily viewed as the business development arm of the state.
But DeBacker says she is still in her element because her main job at the Commerce Department, in the words of Gov. Sam Brownback, who hired her, is to "bridge the gap between the demands of the private sector in Kansas and the way our students are educated in Kansas."
In a recent telephone interview, DeBacker said the transition has been surprisingly smooth.
"Really, there’s a similar feel at both of the agencies," she said. "I really feel at home here because the missions are similar, with the workforce side and the education side. A lot of familiar faces too."
Although it's not often thought of as an education agency, the Department of Commerce has taken on some education-related functions in recent years such as linking students up with industry-related internships and apprenticeship programs.
Until now, though, there has never been a position in state government designed to coordinate between the education community and those kinds of job-training programs.
"This is a new one created by the administration with the specific goal of kind of bringing everything together, all the good work that’s happening in K-12, in higher ed, and on the workforce side, just to kind of coordinate all that and be a direct voice to the governor’s office."
In Kansas, DeBacker said, the Department of Education is not a cabinet-level agency, and therefore often does not have a seat at the table when the governor's team meets together to coordinate state policy. Instead, it's governed by a separately elected State Board of Education, which in turn hires the commissioner to manage day-to-day operations of the agency.
DeBacker's first day at her new job was in early December, and at the time of the interview she was still getting settled into the new environment. But she said she is already developing a sense of where she wants to go.
"The very first thing is just doing a lot of listening to the different groups," she said. "Of course I’m very familiar with the K-12 side and obviously know what’s going on there, but the workforce side and what’s happening specifically in some of those areas to have students go directly into the workforce, do internships, do apprenticeships, those are kind of new to me."
Kansas currently enjoys a very low unemployment rate, reported at 3.5 percent in November. But job growth in Kansas has been lackluster at best, with total private-sector job growth over the past year at 0.3 percent.
Brownback has said on several occasions that many businesses actually have job openings. Their biggest challenge, he says, is finding qualified people to fill those jobs.
One of DeBacker's tasks will be to act as a kind of liaison between the business and education communities to help make sure Kansas schools are providing the kind of education and training that businesses need.
"What my goal is is to visit with those businesspeople, and when they say either that they have openings or they are not getting the people to fill those openings, indicating that either K-12 or higher ed is not giving them the product that they want, I want them to be specific with us," she said.
That doesn't mean, however, that the state is turning its education system into one big job-training program for Kansas businesses. DeBacker insisted there will still be room for things like Shakespeare, poetry, music and theater.
"Oh absolutely, that’s all still there," she said. "The core is still there. I think what we’re seeing more of is, you’re seeing more integration of all that, and more of a seamless education. So where all of the classics and all of the core education are being taught, it’s being taught in a manner that other things are happening at the same time. That’s part of the redesign."
That was a reference to the State Board of Education's new initiative to redesign public education in Kansas around a new vision, called "KansansCan." which puts more emphasis on social and emotional growth, individual plans of study, and college and career readiness in addition to traditional academic performance.
With only one year left in the Brownback administration, however, DeBacker may have precious little time to accomplish her goals. But she said she is confident that the efforts will continue, regardless of the outcome of next year's elections.
"I am confident that this position will be here through many administrations," she said. "We just have way too much happening in all of those sectors to not have this central hub of making sure that everybody’s talking, to make sure that we’re coordinating our efforts, and that we’re giving our businesses what they want with our products and our institutions."