Thursday, February 02, 2006

Corkins speaks

Chat with Bob Corkins, Kansas Education Commissioner |
Diane, Lawrence: Why do you feel you are qualified to lead the schools of Kansas?

Bob Corkins, Commissioner of Education: I am a product of public education, K through post grad, and I owe all the career opportunities I've had to the Kansas public school system. I'm an attorney who is well versed in school finance law and all the constitutional issues it touches. I've professionally researched countless education issues affecting Kansas and I have a wealth of experience in dealing effectively with Kansas lawmakers of all political affiliations as they grapple with these issues. I've represented thousands of Kansas businesses and have successfully operated three small businesses. All these factors, and more, contribute to my unique qualifications for the job.
Would anyone care to estimate how many people in the United States of America who:
  • are products of public schools
  • have experience in school finance law
  • and the constitutional issues it raises
  • have researched educational issues
  • have dealt with lawmakers
  • operated at least three small businesses
I'm guessing that there are thousands. Remember, the finalists for the position were drawn from across the nation, not just from Kansas, and the search was originally to be conducted by a national organization.

What makes Bob Corkins special?

Perhaps his clear grasp of the issues and his ability to directly engage with the difficult issues of the day, like inadequate teacher pay:

Jim, Shawnee: I'll be very blunt. I'm a 25 year old, 2nd year special education teacher in the Kansas City, KS school district. I teach at perhaps the lowest-performing middle school in the entire State of KS. I graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor's and 2 master's degrees in education. My salary is a mere $35,000. I could easily return home to the Chicagoland area and earn $55,000 and retire well over the $100,000 mark. Salaries and benefits are low, and so too, is teacher morale. Everybody and anybody who has put a kid in KS public schools think they can do the job. So as education commissioner, tell me, why stay in KS when it is evident, and clear, such mistrust in our public schools and teachers exist?
My emphasis. I have heard similar sentiments expressed by teachers from western Kansas as well.

Bob Corkins's plan? Deny the problem:
Bob Corkins, Commissioner of Education: Rather than mistrust, the overwhelming sentiment is one of seeking the best possible education outcomes -- for all kids -- that we can achieve. It's not about trust; it's about continually striving for improvement. More options and more student-centered education approaches will benefit everyone. The best charter school studies yet done, for example, show that student performance improves not only for those that enjoy the charter option, performance also improves for those in nearby traditional public schools. Alternative schools, virtual schools, magnet schools and others are all to be applauded for increasing the diversity of options. Furthermore, teachers benefit from expanded employment alternatives. They will be better able to select the school environment, curriculum, and teaching approach that will give them the greatest professional satisfaction. Many other factors will affect their opportunities for greater compensation. I believe the majority understands that greater education funding should be part of the picture, but innovative approaches to the education delivery system have to be considered as well. Don't be too fast to jump at a Chicago teaching job, incidentally, until you compare the cost of living there as well.
And don't knock the cost of living unless you want to evaluate the quality of living, too. The Lake, the museums, the hotbed of 21st century American theatre. Sure, it won't be the same without Berghoff's, but Jim is supposed to pass up all those amenities and a higher salary for … "innovative approaches to the education delivery system"? I'm guessing Jim will be on the next flight to Midway.

And in response to three questions about creationism, Corkins explains that "I fully expect that once Kansans move past the paranoia of 'perceptions,' they'll find that the concerns expressed in each of these questions is without substance." Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

I was intrigued by his description of how his views on vouchers have evolved. While a major uncredited factor in his change of heart must be the fact that his voucher plans had no political support, his description of the state of the Kansas schools is encouraging:

If you had asked me a year or more ago why I advocate [vouchers], I'd have said that student outcomes improve as options allow more flexibility, adaptability, a greater tailoring of education to meet the needs of individual kids. As I've held in-depth talks with the great professionals at the Department of Education and educators throughout Kansas, I've asked them what they believe needs to happen over the next ten years to improve our public school system. Their answer: public schools need to become more flexible, adaptable, with a more tailored approach for each student. That is the common ground that we're proceeding on.
I think this can be paraphrased (given other statements he made earlier) as: before I knew anything about the education system, I thought the whole thing had to be torn down. Now that I know something about it, I think everything I wanted to do with vouchers can be done through internal reform.

I think that's a fair paraphrase because he described how he is working to implement the flexibility, adaptability and tailoring of education to individual students through the existing system.

All it took to convince him the public schools could be saved was $140,000/year, a few thousand dollars for tutors, and a professional staff to explain it to him.