Thursday, October 13, 2005

School superintendents express concerns

Superintendents quiz education commissioner |
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.”
Poor baby. Couldn't really answer their questions.

Asked about his amicus brief insisting that the schools didn't need more money, just better efficiencies,

Corkins said he had no specifics, but said the public school system is “a virtual monopoly not subject to natural market motivations.”

[Wichita Supt. Winston] 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.”
It's scarier that he'll be able to implement policy based on his whimsy now.

On other issues:

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.
It's one thing to defer to experts for details now and then, but I bet he's the only person of the five candidates who couldn't offer an expert opinion on all-day kindergarten.

Let's find out.

I emailed the remaining four. Within a few hours, I heard back from Milt Dougherty, superintendent of the Little River school district.

He opposed mandatory all-day kindergarten, argues that a half-day session is generally better, but felt local school systems should have the flexibility to offer full-day sessions when they deem it appropriate or useful in getting kids into an educational environment.

His most interesting comment, one I'm going to get into more detail on, regarded school funding:

Inefficiencies are much more the result of the system than the people. The whole process of budgeting makes little financial sense. Schools are penalized financially for accelerating learning, and rewarded for slowing it down. I've always said that if educators are expected to do more and more, unless the rules of the system are changed, there needs to be more money.
I take this to mean that schools with better performance don't get benefits, while failing schools get more money (hopefully to fix the problems), but I need to follow up on that. His last sentence is very relevant to these debates, and seems blindingly obvious, though the current commissioner seems to disagree.

Dougherty's general argument was that there should be more flexibility in the schools. I want to get into that in more detail, as well. While he was not enthusiastic about charter schools (especially as implemented in Kansas), he did say that offering multiple opportunities helps kids. Every student learns differently and has different needs, having different opportunities available makes sense. That's easy to do in an urban setting, but it's a huge challenge in a low density state like Kansas. Even aggregating students at a county level probably doesn't give you a critical mass for specialized schools in western Kansas.

On a side note, I wish the Board had held public hearings with each of the candidates and asked these sorts of questions. I think there are interesting ideas out there to be debated, and having the whole process behind closed doors robbed us all of an opportunity for a real discussion about the issues of the day. I'd like to have had public hearings where the candidates would either present a seminar on their plans and policies or allow questioning by the Board or even the public on issues of the day.

School funding represents 42% of the Kansas budget (61% of expenditures from the general fund, plus targeted funds). No debate about cutting taxes or holding them constant is possible without addressing school spending. And the Commissioner is probably the single most powerful individual on that front (the Board is collectively more powerful, as is the Legislature). I'm not convinced that Corkins has thought about these issues beyond ideological opposition to public schooling.

I look forward to hearing from the other candidates and hearing a bit about the diversity of directions we could have gone, and I'm sad that the Board didn't see fit to involve the public in the process of filling this key position.

Update: Some comments clarified.