Monday, December 26, 2005


Selling Charter Schools

When he was appointed Kansas Education Commissioner, Bob Corkins, a man with zero experience or training in the field of education, knew he needed help. So, Corkins put together a transition team to teach him how to do his job.

Before stepping up to his big payday as Education Commissioner -- Corkins now makes more than the Governor -- he was a lobbyist. His stock in trade was scratching politicians backs and retailing the hard right's low-tax gospel to the legislature. In short, he was a salesman.

Corkins may not know much about curriculum development, teacher training, or managing a large government department, but he does know sales. Just a few weeks into the job, he and his transition team are already selling vouchers and charter schools with the dogged persistence of aluminum siding salesmen.

Our schools need the product they're moving -- known as as "scholarships" and "school choice" in the tortured language so favored by the theocrats on the state board of education -- like small Kansas towns need a second WalMart.

Looking past their well-polished shoes, Winston Brooks, the Wichita superintendent of schools, noticed something odd about Corkins' sales team advisers: they all live within a few miles of I-70. None lives farther west than Abilene. And, one lives in Missouri.

But, that doesn't mean Corkins doesn't have something to sell folks in those parts of the state that went unrepresented on his transition team.

"In rural areas," Corkins says charter schools "could be the best insurance policy against further consolidation."

In many parts of rural Kansas, the population has been declining for years. Some Kansas counties reached their maximum population over 100 years ago. In some places, the population density is just five people per square mile, making it difficult to support infrastructure such as governments, roads, education, and health care.

This has forced difficult decisions -- including school consolidations -- on people who remain behind in small towns across Kansas.

Red State Rabble has been through school consolidation discussions and knows there's nothing easy about them. Students face long bus rides to attend schools in other towns. Distance prevents parents from interacting with teachers and attending their children's extra-curricular activities. Teachers, administrators, and school staff lose their jobs, further eroding the local economies. High school sports teams that provide an identity to many small towns disappear.

That's why introducing the suggestion that charter schools might prevent further school consolidation in rural areas into these wrenching discussions, as Corkins, the transition team, and the conservative majority on the board have done, is an especially cynical ploy, even for a state school board that cut its teeth selling the idea that biblical literalism is science and science is religious dogma.

The low-tax crowd that now runs education in Kansas says that charter schools and vouchers will bring much needed competition to the state-run public education monopoly. Competition will spark innovation. Innovation will force new efficiencies on a bloated bureaucracy. Efficiency will lower costs. Taxes will go down.

The Republican Revolution's tax-cut mania, coupled with an inability to cut government spending, is leading to ever higher, possibly unsustainable, deficits in Washington. Likewise, Corkin,s promise to stem the tide of school consolidations with charter schools in small town Kansas can't be reconciled with his -- and the board's -- opposition to higher school funding.

If the state school board is given the power to approve charter schools -- a power that now resides with local school boards in Kansas-- newly consolidated public schools with be robbed. The efficiency of consolidation will not be achieved because small, unregulated charter schools will siphon off at least some students and revenue.

Small towns with dwindling populations that can no longer support quality public schools will sprout poor-quality, unregulated charter schools instead.

The irony in this situation is that the board, completely persuaded by the supposed virtues of creation science and intelligent design, is utterly convinced that unfettered competition will inevitably lead to adaptation and survival of the fittest among public and private schools.

Rejecting Darwin's theory of evolution as an explanation for the origin of species, they nevertheless embrace Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism in relations between human beings. But adding another hungry competitor to the contest for the meager resources remaining in rural Kansas is not likely to lead to survival of the fittest, instead it will lead to starvation and eventual extinction of what once was one of the best school systems in the country.

Truth is, Corkin's sales pitch is nothing but a snow job.


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