Two qualities set Kansas Education Commissioner Bob Corkins apart from other states’ chief school officers.
One: He came to the job from outside the field of professional education.
Two: He is an advocate of vouchers and other forms of choice for students whose needs are not being met in the public school system.
A lawyer who has directed libertarian-leaning think tanks, Corkins won the commissioner’s job last October when a six-member conservative majority of the 10-member Kansas Board of Education decided a fresh perspective would be helpful in reforming public education.
“I believe it is most likely that we will be able to have significant changes only if we have someone from outside the system be able to establish the vision of … what is possible,” said Steve Abrams, a member of the State Board majority that confirmed Corkins’ appointment.
Non-educators have assumed the leadership of big-city school systems in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York, but Corkins, 45, is the first outsider to become a state commissioner.
His appointment drew loud criticism from the education community, major newspapers, and even the state’s governor. While some questioned his ability to run a large state bureaucracy, the most vehement opposition was leveled at his advocacy of vouchers and charter schools.
After his first six months on the job, Corkins has not backed down on his support for school choice, but he has reached out to skeptics and foes and has even begun to find some common ground with them.
Corkins supports targeted vouchers to assist low-income, at-risk, and disabled pupils, contending that providing such options “would strengthen the public school system” and not just the private sector. After extensive hearings on vouchers early in Corkins’ tenure, the state board of education decided to give the proposal further study, by no means closing the door.
A lawyer by training, Corkins deepened his pro-school-choice convictions when he served during much of the 1990s as director of fiscal policy for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, a position that put him in the thick of battles over school finance. The Kansas native began researching the meaning of political labels such as conservatism and classical liberalism. He said the work done by organizations such as the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation led him to embrace educational choice.
“I saw that school choice was the answer to many of the financial and academic deficiencies of the K-12 system,” Corkins said.
Many of the hottest controversies in education, such as “sex education courses, the teaching of science, the choice of textbooks, and the usefulness of various education theories, could best be addressed by providing greater school choice,” Corkins said. Parents and teachers could select schools whose missions and methods best reflect their own values and convictions.
Corkins has headed free-market-oriented think tanks, such as the Flint Hills Public Policy Institute in Wichita, but he said what drives his commitment to school choice is “not simply a desire to achieve competition. That’s not the endgame. The endgame is improving student outcomes. School choice is a means to that end.”
While the commissioner more than once has had the sinking feeling of entering a room packed with hundreds of people philosophically opposed to him and “loaded for bear,” he has found a lot more support talking to staffers and local educators in more informal settings.
Last year, the new commissioner explained his vision for choice in terms of personalizing education and making schools flexible and adaptable. Recently, he asked small groups of educators what they would like to see happen in the next 10 years, and he heard similar objectives: personalized, flexible, adaptable schools. That doesn’t mean he has converted them to his view on vouchers, but he now sees the beginning of a shared language and vision.
“This is where I’ve been able to find some strong common ground,” Corkins said. He is particularly proud of a rare 10-0 state board of education vote approving his proposal for a longitudinal student-data analysis that will enable the state to track the achievement progress of individual students. All factions in the state agree the federal No Child Left Behind approach of judging schools according to the “adequate yearly progress” of clusters of students is woefully misguided.
The emphasis should be on the individual, Corkins said. NCLB, by contrast, compares subgroups of students that are not even the same clusters of children from year to year. Kansas’s new approach will enable educators to “monitor individual student growth year to year.” The U.S. Department of Education is about to evaluate such a “growth model” in several states. Corkins hopes the feds eventually will adopt it for NCLB, and he says Kansas will be in a position to hit the ground running with it.
Meanwhile, with the board’s support, Corkins is going full stream ahead with proposals in the state legislature to strengthen Kansas’ charter school law. One measure would give charter applicants the power to appeal a rejection by a local school board to the state board of education. A second would guarantee charter schools a fairer share of public funding.
While per-pupil spending in regular Kansas public schools averages more than $10,000, the state’s 26 charter schools are expected to make do on just $4,100 per student. Corkins wants to add “weighting factors” that will reward charter schools for the work they do with low-income and bilingual children, and ensure them at least $5,600 per student.
“We have had a charter school law for 10 years, as has Arizona, and yet we have just 26 charter schools while Arizona has hundreds,” said Corkins, adding that giving charter applicants a right to appeal local rejections could jump-start the movement.
Corkins’ communications director, David Awbrey–a former editorial page editor for The Wichita Eagle (and more recently the Burlington, Vermont, Free Press)–believes the unconventional commissioner is making progress in winning over those who doubted his capacity to lead.
“Interestingly,” Awbrey observed, “Bob’s initial lack of expertise with many educational issues has proved to be one of his strongest assets. It has allowed him to think differently and to chart a new direction for what had been a staid, change-resistant state agency.
“For example, one of Bob’s first acts was to introduce flex-time scheduling for department employees,” Awbrey said. “That policy was resisted by the previous administration, even though the department employs large numbers of women with children and [those with] other obligations who need some flexibility in their jobs. The response has been universally positive, and Bob has won the loyalty of many once-skeptical staff members for his willingness to listen to new ideas and to respond to employee concerns about workplace issues.”
Many in the larger education community may never accept Corkins, Awbrey said, because “he is not part of their club” and remains devoted to fundamental, choice-based reform.
Ultimately, politics may determine whether Corkins will have a decent chance to overhaul the system. Four of the six board members who supported his appointment are up for re-election this fall, and opponents are lining up to make Corkins himself the key issue.
Robert Holland ([email protected]) is an author and journalist who writes frequently about education.