Category Archives: People

Finalists for Commissioner Announced

The names of the two finalists for the state commissioner of education are out. Among them: Alexna Posny, a former finalist and current official in the U.S. Department of Education.

See: “Education commissioner finalists are named,” Lawrence Journal World, April 27


Ask Questions, Become an Enemy?

In a review of the tenure of Bob Corkins, political reporter John Hanna notes a distressing attitude concerning K-12 education: ask questions, and you’ll become the enemy.

“But Corkins’ lack of education experience can’t explain the depth of hostility he faced or the stunned response to his appointment from prominent legislators. … To many educators, Corkins came from the enemy camp: the conservative bloc in society that sustains a vibrant home school movement and complains about the supposedly too-secular values being taught in public schools.”

The enemy camp? OK, we can understand that teachers and administrators would resent someone coming in (as the State Board of Education did) and saying “No, you can’t teach that, you’ve got to teach this.” But the opposition to home schooling is baffling. Granted, the motivations and methods of some home schoolers are not to everyone’s liking. But shouldn’t the chief concern of educators be that children . . . receive an education, even if it’s not in their own school?

Some large school districts in the nation have brought in non-educators to be superintendents, in part because they are not part of the status quo. Sometimes it is easier for an outsider to see the need for change than outsiders. By their nature, organizations have a tendency towards ossification, refusing to make changes necessary to respond to a changing environment. Bringing in an outsider can be a good thing, if the person has leadership skills, is willing to learn, and so forth.

At least one Kansas superintendent was willing to go on the record that complacency can be dangerous:

“Little River Superintendent Milt Dougherty  . . . said employers constantly express concerns to him that too many students are leaving school without the skills they’ll need to get good jobs in a globally competitive economy.

His prediction: The new commissioner will be from Kansas, ‘an educator well accepted by the educational establishment, upbeat, outgoing, a cheerleader, who maybe talks a little about change and innovation but really isn’t going to get serious about it.’

‘The problem is if you get someone who is accepted by the education establishment, they’re probably pretty much status quo,’ he said. ‘If you get somebody who’s not status quo, then they’re not accepted by the education establishment.'”

We have no idea who the new commissioner will be. And we agree that an insider can do the job. But we’re troubled by the complacency that seems to govern Kansas schools.

Source: Corkins replacement likely to have establishment credentials, Kansas City Star, December 3.

Corkins Out as Ed Commissioner

For Bob Corkins, the end came sooner rather than later.

When Bob Corkins was selected by the State Board of Education as the Kansas commissioner of education last year, it was clear that he was in a tenuous position. He was assailed on several fronts: he was not a teacher or a school administrator. He has opposed tax increases for schools. He had supported vouchers. And he had never been in charge of a large organization; the KSDE has over 200 employees.

We always thought that this later quality would be his biggest challenge, though it turns out that he could not overcome the political resistance from the teacher union, the local school boards, the local school administrators, a minority (soon to be majority) of the state board, and a skeptical public at large. The controversies over the curriculum (sex education and evolution) focused attention on schooling, as did Montoy, the school funding lawsuit. Corkin’s fate was sealed with the results of August’s primary election, when the conservative majority that hired him lost its dominance of the board.  The only question was when he would leave.

Corkins answered that question this week, when he resigned rather than wait for his certain dismissal, which most likely would have come in January, with the installation of a new majority on the board.

At least one critic was gracious in the wake of Corkin’s resignation. Philip Baringer, a KU professor who attacked the SBOE for using ideology as the main criterion for hiring, said “”From what I could tell from following the board through the media, he did seem to try to do the job to the best of his ability. But he was severely handicapped by not having credentials to begin with.”

One could say that he was handicapped by the opposition, too. As the Capital-Journal put it, “College faculty, public school administrators, lawmakers and others practically climbed over each other for a chance to rip him and the board.”

The Kansas Association of School Boards jealously guarded its prerogatives. Here’s what Mark Tallman, public face of the KASB, had to say, as quoted by the Wichita Eagle: “”Rather than going down a course that says the state board wants to work with schools in creating new and innovative programs, the tenor has been the system isn’t working and we must create a way to override local boards.” Combined with the belief that Corkins was, in the words of one board member, “anti-schools,”he didn’t stand a chance.

Sources: Has Time Run Out for Corkins? Topeka Capital-Journal,  November 22, 2006; Corkins Resigns Top Education Post, Wichita Eagle, November 23; Corkins Resigns as Education Commissioner, Lawrence Journal-World, November 23.

Corkins One Year Later

The Wichita Eagle editorial blog notes the one-year anniversary of Bob Corkin’s appointment to the job of Commissioner of Education.

The KC Star reminds readers of the usual criticisms, and channels the claims that charter schools aren’t really public schools.

The Topeka Capitol-Journal provides a review as well, and reminds us of what may be Corkin’s most enduring legacy–getting grants to start a data warehouse that will track individual student performance. The idea, sensible enough, is that schools should know what works at an individual level.

Should Charter School Start-Ups Be “Connected” to School Districts?

The Lawrence Journal-World gives a short profile of Betty Horton, a charter school advocate. Horton speaks bluntly:

“Horton, an education consultant from Topeka, . . . said she is expecting warfare.

‘When you talk about charter schools being developed by African Americans and community people, the school district can get ugly and can do some horrific things,’ Horton said.”

Charter schools are a family thing–Horton, her husband, and her sister and brother-in-law have all received grants of $1,995 to help develop plans for charter schools.

Horton now heads the Kansas Association of Charter Schools. (The organization does not yet have a web site, it appears.). She is not getting a universal endorsement. “State Board of Education member Sue Gamble, a Republican from Shawnee, has questioned the awarding of the grants, saying those receiving the grants seem to have no connection to school districts.”

That last sentence has an interesting phrase. “No connection to school districts.” Ms. Gamble may be correct on that point (we really don’t know). But that obscures a more important question: do the people involved have a connection to education? And can they help guide would-be charter school operators into sound territory? Gamble’s comments reflect a common but misguided sentiment: “education” should be limited to what is approved by the local school district. This confuses desired end (an educated population) with one particular means–the politically elected local school board.

Independent charter schools are not for every student, nor should they be. But it’s time to recognize that the needs of students can be served by multiple educational authorities.

By the way, the sidebar in the article has some useful links.

State Board Race Wrap-Up

The votes have been cast and counted, and the results announced. What happens next?

The race drew the attention of the Washington Post and New York Times, of course. Due to publication schedules, no doubt, the Post didn’t say much. In a pre-election piece emphasizing the science controversy, the Times reminds us of the history board flips: 1998 (“conservatives win”); 2000 (“moderates win”); 2002 (5-5); 2004 (“conservatives win”), and finally, 2006.

USA Today, meanwhile, continues the science theme with the headline “Evolution Opponents Lose Control.”

The Kansas City Star provides percentages for each district. The Lawrence Journal-World offers this lead: “Darwin won.” The comments section is often filled with lots of name-calling all around; this particular day seems to have set a record for comments pulled by the LJW’s staff, suggesting that moderation in tone is in short supply.

SBOE District 7 Highlights Differences in Opinion

The McPherson Sentinel offers up a review of the State Board of Education primary race in district 7, between M.T. Liggett, Donna Viola, and Ken Willard, incumbent.

Among the topics: science standards, sex-ed requirements, department commissioner Bob Corkins, charter schools, and vouchers.

Viola’s opposition to charter school expansion is based on a preference for “local control.” But what could be more “local” than a parent? It’s time for charter schools to have an alternative to the local school board when it comes time to getting an authorization.

Men Who Would Be Governor

The Kansas City Star offers soundbites from several of several candidates running for the Republican Party’s nomination for governor.

Among the interesting comments:

“He wanted larger classes in high schools so students could better compete once they began attending universities, which often have large classes.”

KE: We believe that the benefits of smaller classes can be oversold. But this may be the first time we have heard someone argue for larger classes.

“Administrators ‘are making way too much money,’ he said.”
KE: It’s probably true that some administrators are making more than many people would like. But a more important question is the number of administrators. And even more important than that is  whether schools wisely spend the rest of their budgets. Administrative salaries are but a portion of district finances.

“He said he supported automatic increases to school funding ….”

KE: This sounds kind and pro-child. But even good intentions cannot erase the problems of a bad idea. There are at least two means of providing fiscal oversight: make legislators approve funding increases, or make voters do it directly. Why would we let any unit of government get a pass on accountability?

Improving Student Performance, Charter Schools

The Kansas City Star has a story highlighting Janet Waugh (State Board of Education incumbent) and her primary election challenger, Jesse Hall.

Waugh, the incumbent, sees steady progress in student achievement in the four counties she represents.

“For my district, education is the only escape for many children from a life of poverty or crime or, frankly, death at a young age,” she said. “I’m passionate about all children being educated.”

Waugh is right: education is very important. Children who don’t get a good education can end up in serious trouble. The costs can be high for the student and society as a whole.

Hall, however, is alarmed by the dropout rate in the district and across the state and wants schools to focus more on the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

“If we can lower the dropout rate, go back and teach the basics, then we’ll have a much-improved local economy,” he said.

It’s easy to find things to agree with here as well. Drop-outs are at a scandalous rate. Too many students don’t know the basic of reading and math (see the National Assessment for Education Progress).

So how do we get there?

Hall, we learn in the article, supports making it easier for charter schools to open up. Currently, charter applications must be approved not only by the state, but by the local district.

Under the current law, anyone who wants to start a charter school must ask “Dear local school board. We’d like to open up a school that will result in some of your students leaving your schools. Their money will leave with them. How about it?”

Not exactly a formula for promoting the use of charter schools.

Waugh, by contrast, opposes the move, saying that it’s a matter of “local control.”

But as the ongoing political and legal controversy over funding goes, the state has a significant role to play in education. So it’s not merely “local control.” More appropriately, policy makers should increase student and family control.

SBOE Election Review: District 7

The Wichia Eagle gives a short review of the candidates in the SBOE election for district 7. The Pratt Tribune offers a more extensive coverage. (The KSDE web site has a state map that shows the different districts.)

More on the Elections

The Hutchinson News comments on the district 5 race between incumbent Connie Morris of Saint Francis faces and primary challenger Sally Cauble. Topics included evolution and the education of illegal immigrants.

Morris endorsed English language immersion over bilingual education. The News doesn’t say what Cauble would favor. Too bad, for thoughtful people can disagree, and it’s a topic that merits more attention.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Daily News runs with a profile of Morris. As you might expect, the science standards get heavy play.

All this reminds us of the silliness that sometimes obtains when decisions about schooling are made by politicians rather than parents.

Local Control?

The KC Star has an interesting story on the coming election. In one race at least, the question comes down to “who is more in favor of local control, and what does that mean?”

It just might be better if control is more local than not. After all, our national political system is based on federalism, the principle that some responsibilities should be as local as can be.

When it comes to education, there’s nothing more local than the role of a parent. How about some increased power for parents to decide their own children’s education? Why is having 10 elected people in Dodge City better than having 10 elected people in Topeka make decisions?

We saw this description of the views of Harry E. McDonald III, a candidate for the SBOE. We don’t mean to pick on him–doubtless his views are held by many.

The current charter-school law allows flexibility to meet needs determined by local boards. The effort to give failed applicants an appeal demonstrates a lack of respect for local boards, he said.

Respect for local boards? It would be great to have some more respect for parents by giving them more flexibility, by, say, making charter schools more accessible.

Waugh to Run for Re-election

Janet Waugh, one of the four members in the minority on the State Board of Education, has announced plans for a re-election campaign.

Waugh says:

Instead of focusing our attention on the crucial issues facing Kansas such as continuous improvement, closing the gap, raising graduation rates, increasing test scores and making sure all students achieve at high levels, the board has spent its time debating issues that will do little to help schools and students.
She certainly has addressed key issues: facing the achievement gap, less-than-ideal graduation rate, and improving student achievement.

We suspect–it’s been a while since we’ve paid attention to the preferences of individual board members–that she’s against many of the proposals to increase competition and choice, such as charter schools.

Turnover at the Department of Education: Normal, Cause for Alarm? Skepticism?

There’s been some shuffling of personnel at the Kansas Department of Education.

According to this article in the Lawrence Journal-World, “Jeannette Nobo has been named director of professional learning communities at the Kansas Department of Education.”

Professional learning communities?

We hope the best for Ms. Nobo, and we recognize that every industry has its jargon, euphemisms, and insider language. But “professional learning communities” is an example of how disconnected the education industry is from the wider world.

Meanwhile, turnover at the department was 21 percent last year. Bob Corkins — perhaps we should name him “Bob (Lightning Rod) Corkins — is being blamed by some of his critics for an increase in turnover. Says Janet Waugh, “I think people are not happy, so they’re leaving.”

Perhaps they are unhappy. That could be bad. Or it could be good. We don’t know yet; we should wait to see what the department produces and how it operates in the years to come.

More importantly, we might want to wait to see what happens to achievement and fiscal performance–though it’s hard to tie those outcomes to specific changes in an administrative department.

But the larger point is that the KSDE, or any government agency, exists to serve a function. That function is not the maintenance of a stable workforce. A stable workforce can be good. Or bad. Time will tell.

Candidates Clash

Two candidates for the State Board of Education participated in a debate held at Johnson County Community College. As you’d expect, science standards were a topic of discussion–the only one, if you read this account of the KC Star.

Granted, journalists like to focus on controversy. We hope that there were other important topics discussed at the forum, though we’re not sure that was the case.

KCMO Superintendent: No Excuses

Anthony Amato takes over as the new superintendent of the Kansas City, Missouri school district. He wins high marks for innovation, but we what we like the most is this comment:

“First and foremost, I can find the money in the system, rearrange how we spend the money. I never sit back and say, ‘We can’t do it because we don’t have the money.’ That’s the easiest excuse in the world.”In the KC Star (cited below), he says “We have enough money now. I know it’s almost heresy to say that.”

We wish Mr. Amato success in his endeavors, though we suspect that inertia and other problems will loom as larger challenges than moving around funds.

A KC Star article quotes him as saying “Don’t fear change.” Good for him–for in any large organization, change is what is needed.

One promising initiative: smaller high schools.

If the record of his own family’s educational achievement are any guide, KCMO  can expect some good things.

Democratic Challenger in SBOE Contest

The Lawrence Journal-World has a story on Jesse Hall, who is running against Janet Waugh for the State Board of Education in the Democratic Party primary. As usual, curriculum takes center stage.

85-year old teacher keeps teaching

Here’s a feel-good story:Lucy Saunders is a special education teacher in KCK. At age 85.

Reorganization at KSDE

Commissioner of Education Bob Corkins announces a reorganization of the Kansas Department of Education. Among the changes: two new deputies.

Getting the nod are Thomas Foster, deputy commissioner for the Learning Services Division, and Larry Allen Englebrick, deputy commissioner for the School Innovation Division. Englebrick services in a new position

The announcement was met with skepticism by SBOE member Bill Wagnon, who said that innovation should permeate the department. Fair enough–but then again, having an institutional champion for a cause is often useful.

An Introduction to Anthony Amato

The KC Star provides an introduction to Anthony Amato, new superintendent of the KCMO school district. Reporters Joe Robertson and Mike Sherry review his time in New York and New Orleans. As you’d expect from anyone who has worked in large school systems, there are positive and negative comments.

Spokesman Makes News

David Awbrey, still new in his job as spokesman for the Kansas Department of Education, has put in his two cents on the controvery surrounding evolution, calling it one of several metaphysical speculations.

Awbrey still has some things to learn about PR.