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He don’t need no education

Critics complain that Kansas' new education commissioner doesn't have any classroom experience. But that doesn't count his mastery of politics.

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It's an unseasonably warm November Tuesday in Topeka. Reporters from across the globe have crammed into the normally empty boardroom to witness the Kansas Board of Education officially insert criticism of evolution into the state's public-school science standards. Cameras surround the horseshoe-shaped table where the state school board's ten members are seated. This is a board so politicized that its members openly identify themselves as either "moderates" or "conservatives" (no "liberals" here). In the center, next to Chairman Steve Abrams, sits Bob Corkins, the newly hired education commissioner of Kansas.

While the board members battle over science standards (the moderates, outnumbered six to four, eventually lose), Corkins seems unfazed. It's only his second month on the job, and Corkins himself has become the latest Kansas state school board controversy.

Hired by the board on October 4, Corkins has never been a teacher, principal, superintendent or dean. The most experience he has had running any organization is a few years spent heading up a pair of one-man think tanks. Now he is in charge of the state's department of education.

A casual observer of news accounts documenting Corkins' rise to state education commissioner might conclude that his hiring was simply another ridiculous move by an elected body of half-wits.

But the casual observer would be wrong. Given Corkins' lack of experience, and given that this is Kansas, there's only one possible explanation for his hiring: politics.

In fact, Corkins' ascension to education commissioner was a calculated move by the board's six conservative members — Abrams, John Bacon, Kathy Martin, Connie Morris, Iris Van Meter and Ken Willard.

"There's very little that we do that isn't a political move," Bacon tells the Pitch. "There's not any part of anything we do that isn't politically motivated, because we're all trying in one way or another to mold our culture, I guess."

For years, Corkins has quietly operated within the far-right wing of Kansas' Republican Party, providing philosophical direction, position papers and talking points to the state's most conservative senators and representatives.

Earlier this year, before he was a candidate for education commissioner, Corkins was one of the state's most vocal critics of spending money on public schools.

Now he's in charge of them.

That's no accident. It's by design.

Corkins will tell you that he's a product of public schools, having grown up the son of a salesman in Hutchinson, Kansas. He says his family lived in a three-bedroom house on, he says, the "wrong side of the railroad tracks." In 1979, he graduated from Hutchinson High School; he later married Nancy Caldwell, a girl he had met in the high school band. He'll also tell you that his two sons, 13-year-old Sam and 15-year-old Jon, attend public school in Lawrence.

In high school, Corkins was a hell of a debater. His skills earned him a scholarship to Emporia State University; later, he transferred to the University of Northern Iowa and graduated in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in speech and a minor in journalism. He attended law school at the University of Kansas and graduated in 1989.

After college, Corkins spent nearly a decade — from 1989 to 1998 — working as a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He was the director of taxation and small-business development, lobbying the state Legislature on behalf of clients such as Target, Sears, the J.C. Penney Company, General Motors and Boeing. His specialties were tax and fiscal-policy issues.

"That put me at the middle of the debate here in Kansas when we overhauled the school finance formula in 1992," Corkins tells the Pitch. In 1992, several school districts sued the state, claiming that they weren't getting an equal share of school money from the Legislature. Lawmakers eventually agreed to a new formula that distributed money on a per-pupil basis. "I was really in the trenches when that whole debate was going on. So I've come to know the school finance formula better than most," Corkins says.

But other debates were what some lawmakers remembered when Corkins' name surfaced as a candidate for state education commissioner. On October 17, the Lawrence Journal-World recalled that Sen. Audrey Langworthy had banned him from her office in the late '90s — the only person she had ever banned in more than 15 years in the state Senate. "Bob was definitely working with the ultraconservatives in the House," Langworthy, the former chairwoman of the Senate Tax Committee and a moderate Republican from Prairie Village, told the Journal-World. (She did not return calls from the Pitch.) In the Journal-World article, Corkins claimed that he'd had several pleasant conversations with Langworthy, who told the paper she didn't recall the conversations.

Norman "Bud" Grant, a retired lobbyist for the chamber who worked closely with Corkins, tells the Pitch that the dust-up between Corkins and Langworthy was a misunderstanding. Corkins was trying to serve as a liaison between Langworthy's committee and Tim Shallenburger, who was then speaker of the house, Grant explains. "I don't think Senator Langworthy wanted him bringing the message from the speaker. I think she wanted the speaker to bring the message himself," he says.

Grant says Corkins had a hard time not arguing with people because he felt so strongly about his position and knew it well. Sometimes, Grant says, he would have to corral Corkins and tell him, "When a legislator says you're through, you're through. You don't debate any further with them.

"Bob, on rare occasions, would want to carry this debate probably farther than he should," Grant adds. "But that was just coming from his background. He wants to talk about these issues, and sometimes he'd get a little carried away."

Another former chamber lobbyist, Jim Edwards, worked with Corkins for eight years. The two didn't always agree, says Edwards, who worked on education and economic development issues. Now a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, Edwards says Corkins' focus has always been on lowering taxes at any cost, even if it means losing services. He doesn't expect Corkins' approach to change now that he is in charge of a public education system with a $3.1 billion budget, overseeing 300 school districts.

"Bob's not a typical hired-gun lobbyist that can, because they have to, change with the winds," Edwards says.

Adds retired Sen. Dave Kerr, "I never thought he was all that effective, but I didn't think of him being a particularly unreliable source at that time."

Corkins left the chamber in 1998 to lead the Kansas Public Policy Institute, now known as the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy, in Wichita. At the time, the KPPI was a year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan, policy think tank. Its mission statement: "The Kansas Public Policy Institute, dedicated to the constitutional principles of limited government, open markets and individual freedom and responsibility, serves as an independent source of information regarding public policy issues." Corkins left the KPPI in 2001 to take over two other think tanks, Kansas Legislative Education and Research Inc. and the Freestate Center for Liberty Studies. The latter was a nonprofit research institute started by Republican legislators Patricia Ranson, Gayle Mollenkamp and Terry Presta. The two groups shared the same office, and Corkins was the sole employee of each. His job was to review every piece of legislation to see whether it met the groups' shared guiding principles: limited government, individual liberty, free enterprise and traditional family values.

"Every bill that we supported was analyzed in keeping with those principles," Corkins tells the Pitch. "And that's all we provided — research and analysis and recommendations in line with those concepts, not being partisan about it at all. And it grew."

When Corkins appeared before Senate committees to testify on changing the state's retirement plan for public employees or on tax issues, Kerr, a Republican from Hutchinson who was then president of the Senate, didn't believe Corkins' testimony was reliable. "I felt he was generally guided in his testimony by the political philosophy of his employer much more than where the facts would lead him," Kerr tells the Pitch.

Before Corkins took over, Kansas Legislative Education and Research Inc. was known as the Kansas Conservative Caucus. Incorporation papers filed by the organization at the Kansas Secretary of State's office define KLEAR as "a nonpartisan study and research group for members of the Kansas Legislature, to analyze issues affecting the state of Kansas and to work toward sound legislation, which will benefit the people of the state of Kansas." Today it's bankrolled by 72 legislators, who pay $400 a year in membership dues, and by corporate contributions, according to the Journal-World. (Disclosure forms require businesses to list contributions only when they exceed $5,000. The only company to have made such a donation to KLEAR is Wichita-based Koch Industries, according to the Wichita Eagle. In July 2005, the Center for Public Integrity called company owners Charles and David Koch "among the biggest backers of conservative and libertarian causes" in the country.)

Membership in KLEAR was limited exclusively to legislators. Corkins claims that KLEAR enjoyed bipartisan support, but he declines to name members from the other side of the aisle.

"We had a couple of Democrat members at the onset," Corkins says. "Each year, we brought on more under my guidance — people who appreciated an independent view of every one of these issues that come on the floor in line with the organization's guiding principles."

KLEAR's board of directors, however, appears to be hardcore conservative — the list of past and current board members includes Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline (who served on the board when he was in the House in 1999) and conservative Olathe Sen. Karin Brownlee (who served on the board in 2003).

KLEAR's most notable member is leading Senate conservative Tim Huelskamp of Fowler, who served as the organization's president in 2003.

Huelskamp did not return the Pitch's phone calls, but his public résumé of conservative activism dates back to 1991, when he was among the more than 2,000 people arrested during Operation Rescue's "Summer of Mercy" protests against Dr. George Tiller's Wichita abortion clinic, according to The Kansas City Star. In 1998, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Huelskamp had questioned the religious beliefs of fellow Sen. Jim Barone of Frontenac, who had refused to support a bill outlawing partial-birth abortion. Huelskamp told the paper he was merely trying to get Barone to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Huelskamp has advocated rewriting divorce laws to make it more difficult for married couples to split up. He also has called for a federal amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and he wrote the Kansas marriage amendment passed by voters in April. In January 2002, Huelskamp engaged in a public war of words with then-Gov. Bill Graves, also a Republican, over tax increases after Graves' State of the State speech.

Recently, Huelskamp wrote a piece posted on the Kansas Taxpayers Network Web site titled "Elitist Arrogance in Kansas." In it, Huelskamp defended the school board's hiring of Corkins, whom he called his "dear friend and colleague," and he attacked Corkins' detractors.

"Based on the elitist disgorging, it is abundantly clear that Bob Corkins is the perfect man for this job," he wrote. "We need an education commissioner who can work with the state board of education, the Legislature, the 300 elected school boards and the taxpayers of Kansas to develop a 21st Century vision for education in Kansas. Instead of simply focusing on spending more money doing more of the same, it is time our government education system focused on real improvement, cost efficiency and responsiveness to the needs of parents and students."

But the debate hasn't yet been settled on what constitutes "real improvement, cost efficiency and responsiveness to the needs of parents and students." All of that is political, too.

There's no other explanation for how a man who had never handed out a homework assignment or given a detention, let alone run a department of 200-plus employees, ended up the front-runner in a messy job search.

After nearly a decade as the state's education commissioner, Andy Tompkins announced in February that he would retire in June. By all accounts, Tompkins had been respected by partisans on all sides of Kansas' education wars and was considered the spokesman for public education in Kansas. He had a litany of education credentials — he had been an interim dean at the school of education at Pittsburg State University; had held superintendent positions in Salina, El Dorado and Satanta; and had been a principal and a teacher.

Tompkins now teaches graduate courses at the University of Kansas' school of education. He denies that recent board controversies drove him into retirement. After all, he'd been through it before, when conservative board members first challenged evolution in 1999.

The board stumbled through the process of hiring Tompkins' replacement. In June, after narrowing the field to two finalists — Alexa Posny, the education department's deputy commissioner for learning services, and Sharol Little, the outgoing superintendent of the Manhattan-Ogden School District — the board couldn't reach a consensus. Little withdrew and accepted a superintendent post in Colorado.

The board reopened the application process, paying the National Association of State Boards of Education $7,000 to conduct the search and narrow the field.

At a September meeting, conservative board members expressed displeasure with NASBE's method of scoring applicants. NASBE had rated each candidate on three criteria — education policy, school-district management and the implementation of education legislation. Each also was rated on a separate, less weighted category: business and political experience. Conservative members successfully argued to change the scoring matrix to make that fourth criterion equal to that of education experience.

After that meeting, NASBE Executive Director Brenda L. Welburn fired off a letter to the board, indicating that NASBE was forfeiting its contract and removing itself from the process, but not because of the change in candidate scoring. Rather, Welburn was dismayed that board members had taken applications home with them, removing them from the closed-door confines of the board's meetings in executive session.

"I have never agreed to have applications out of a controlled environment," Welburn wrote in a letter to the board. "It violates the most fundamental principles of personnel practices. I want it to be clear that I had no problem with the Board changing the scoring matrix, but with the decision to have the applications withdrawn from a controlled environment, which was unacceptable. Furthermore, it is always our practice to present the top candidates (based on the Board's criteria) to the Board, recognizing that the Board can choose to interview the other candidates."

Corkins' résumé surfaced after the first failed search. He tells the Pitch that he decided to apply when he learned that the board was taking, he says, a "broad-minded approach" to hiring a new commissioner, considering applicants from outside the education field.

By mid-September, after weeks without agreement on candidates, the board announced five new finalists: Corkins, Posny, Milt Dougherty (superintendent of the Little River School District in central Kansas), G. Daniel Harden (an education professor at Topeka's Washburn University) and Kurt Steinhaus (a deputy cabinet secretary of education in New Mexico). Only two of the names had been on NASBE's short list — and Corkins' wasn't one of them.

"Obviously, he didn't rate highly on NASBE's scale because they were looking at the things that we said that we were looking for — experience in education or in a business-related field, knowledge of the board's goals and how to carry them out," says moderate board member Carol Rupe. "Bob didn't even write anything about that. He wrote zero."

Criticism of Corkins' selection was immediate and severe, from the governor's office down.

"I am, frankly, worried," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius told reporters. "At the minimum, Kansans demand competence of their government officials, and I worry about an individual who has absolutely no education experience and no management experience leading this very critical agency."

Equally disturbing to his critics was that Corkins was hired at a salary of $140,000 — just a few hundred dollars less than the $141,419 outgoing commissioner Tompkins was making after nine years on the job.

Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, told The Johnson County Sun that Corkins' hiring as education commissioner was "sort of like making Saddam Hussein president of the United States."

Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, piled on with a letter calling Corkins an amateur.

"Amateurs do bring perspective to the work, but they lack a deep understanding of the complexities involved and must be very cautious not to say things that would be viewed as naïve and ill-informed," Houston wrote in an October 18 letter to Corkins that was later obtained by several media outlets. "Unfortunately, you have already taken some positions that spark that thought with some of the professional educators of Kansas."

Houston concluded, "I am sure that if you can get past your previous limiting beliefs in vouchers and cutting funding for schools, the school leaders in Kansas will reach out and help you become an effective leader. The choice is yours."

Corkins brushes off the criticism. "A lot of people are just unfamiliar with my background and everything that's brought me up to this point," he tells the Pitch. "Any light we can shed on that might help to allay a lot of unwarranted concerns."

In contrast, the Kansas Republican Assembly hailed Corkins' hiring as "a big A-plus" for the state board and gushed over Corkins' "credentials, character and vision."

Conservatives argued that he brought a new perspective and innovative ideas to the position. But those familiar with Corkins' years as a lobbyist knew that he had championed private-school vouchers and charter schools — ideas that many observers believe are designed to chip away at public education altogether.

At the heart of the school-finance debate is an old-fashioned tax fight, with Corkins representing the anti-tax forces. A year ago, he wrote a brief on behalf of the Kansas Taxpayers Network arguing that the Kansas Supreme Court had overstepped its authority by requiring state lawmakers to find more money for schools. The state constitution calls on the Legislature to provide "suitable" funding for public education but doesn't define suitable.

"I remember his brief being pretty well reasoned and pretty well written and absolutely wrong on everything," says attorney Alan Rupe, who represented the school districts' in the case.

Throughout the spring, as the Kansas Legislature wrestled over the court's ruling, Corkins stayed on the offensive. In April he wrote a column titled "Wearing a Black Robe to Make a Sausage" on the Kansas Political News Web site arguing against the court's call for more money. "The Supreme Court is free to declare that 'suitable' means whatever it chooses," Corkins wrote. "Maybe they'll pluck from their favorite dictionary definitions. 'Suitable' could easily become like Equal Protection on steroids, meaning anything the court might eventually consider 'fair.'"

Finally, an all-out brawl between the Kansas Supreme Court and the Legislature erupted in June after the high court demanded that lawmakers pony up an extra $143 million for schools — three months after the Legislature had approved an additional $142 million for schools. Legislators were forced into a special session, and cries of judicial activism erupted from many Republcian legislators, who called for a constitutional amendment to put the court's influence in check.

The court also had hinted that it would demand an additional $568 million for the next school year, taking its figure from a 2001 study by Augenblick & Myers, a Denver education-funding consulting firm now known as Augenblick, Palaich & Associates Inc.

In late October, now in his official capacity as state education commissioner, Corkins launched a pre-emptive strike against the education-cost studies ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court. "Do not reduce your role to blindly consenting to whatever dollars any given study deems right," Corkins told legislators, according to an account in the Journal-World.

The school board's conservatives had succeeded at hiring someone who would fight the taxing mandates of the Kansas Supreme Court. Corkins has stressed that he is an employee of the 10-member board and that he plans to carry out its wishes. He's on record supporting the board's changes to science standards; he also supports changing health-class rules so that parents will have to make a special request if they want their children to attend sex-education classes. Corkins' vocal support has impressed conservative board member Kathy Martin.

"I thought, Wow, I've only been on [the board] for 10 months, but our other commissioner had never come out publicly and said he supported our decision," Martin tells the Pitch. "That's really nice. Since he's working for us, he's supporting our decisions. That was very refreshing to me."

In two months on the job, Corkins hasn't exactly been refreshing to everyone.

Trying to ease school administrators' worries, Corkins spent part of his second day on the job meeting with superintendents. Some of them were unimpressed.

"Now that I've met him, I'm even more concerned," Wichita Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks tells the Pitch.

The superintendents had heard Corkins' "school choice" rhetoric. They knew Corkins' past advocacy against additional money for schools. They'd heard him say public schools are inefficient. So Brooks quizzed Corkins: What are some examples of inefficiencies?

"His response was that he did not know of any specific inefficiencies, but whenever an organization such as public schools has a monopoly or a corner on the market like we do, then we are inherently inefficient," Brooks says. "I came back at him and said, 'So you have no specific set of circumstances or examples of things that are inefficient,' and he said he did not."

Corkins couldn't quell the anxiety of administrators. And within days of his hiring, he had riled moderates by adding a proposal to the board's October agenda to pay G. Daniel Harden, a failed finalist for the commissioner's job and noted friend of chairman Steve Abrams, $15,000 to lead his transition team for the next six months. The board took the measure off its agenda, but Corkins contracted Harden for $2,500 a month for three months. (The commissioner does not need board approval to spend less than $10,000.)

One especially notable name on Harden's ten-member transition team is former board member Scott Hill, a conservative who was instrumental in excluding most references to evolution from the science standards in 1999. (In July 2000, Hill resigned from the state board after a contentious fight with then-Attorney General Carla Stovall, who argued that he couldn't continue to serve on the board after moving to — and registering to vote in — Montana.) The transition team's initial work raised red flags with critics when education department employees were asked if they supported "school choice, charter schools and parental empowerment." Critics say that line of questioning puts employees in a tricky spot, considering Corkins' vocal support of vouchers and charter schools.

"The reality is, that decision has nothing to do with the employees," moderate board member Janet Waugh tells the Pitch. "All of those decisions will be made by the board. So why this would be asked of the employees is beyond me."

Corkins also offered a contract to Valerie Jennings, who owns a public-relations company called Pure Eloquence. For $5,000 a month for two months, Jennings took over for Kathy Toelkes, who resigned in late October as education department spokeswoman to take a position as an account executive with a financial-services company. Jennings' Web site boasts that she has helped conservative politicians win elections.

In mid-November, Corkins found his communications director — David Awbrey, a former Wichita Eagle editorial page editor. Awbrey shares more than a hometown with Corkins; both have criticized schools for refusing to change. Awbrey starts in December. He'll make $76,000 a year, a $3,000 raise from Toelkes' salary.

With Corkins' new team in place and the evolution controversy settled for now, the board is moving on to other causes close to the hearts of conservatives. For the state's upcoming legislative session, it wants to loosen restrictions on charter schools and move toward state-sponsored "scholarships" (i.e., vouchers) for at-risk and special-education students. Early sketches of Corkins' voucher plan reveal that at-risk students would receive about $3,000 to attend private schools.

Corkins tells the Pitch he's not out to kill public education.

"What's driving me, and what's always driven me in promoting that type of reform, is the desire to make the public schools as good as we can," he says. "And it is my desire that we will make public schools of such high quality that that will be the first choice of parents."

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