I’m From Kansas: Some advice for the United States Secretary of Education

Kansas has long been recognized as a national leader in education. Compared with other states, Kansas public schools have high levels of student success for relatively low levels of spending. Of course, part of being a leader is pushing the envelope and sometimes the envelope pushes back when mistakes are made. We have had those moments as well.

The Kansas Association of School Boards celebrates its 100th year of service this year, but one only has to go back about a decade to see that Kansas was ahead of its time with a decision that did not work out as well. Writing for the Lawrence Journal World in 2005, KASB’s own Scott Rothschild reported that the state board hired “…a conservative activist with no educational background who lobbied against school funding to be education commissioner.”

Hired on a 6-4 vote by a conservative majority, the new commissioner was a controversial figure who advocated strongly for more charter schools and vouchers. By most accounts, the new commissioner was bright and friendly, but his ideas did not take hold, and a little over a year later, the Topeka Capital Journal wrote an editorial giving the commissioner credit for “gracefully stepping down.”

So, when Kansas educators hear about a new U.S. Secretary of Education, hired on 51-50 vote, who is described by the Washington Post as a “conservative activist with no educational background,” we can say, ‘been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.’

As usual, Kansas was ahead of its time educationally and Kansans are uniquely qualified to offer some advice based on that experience. Here are some things for Secretary DeVos to think about, offered in the humble spirit of some guy from Kansas who is a second-generation educator and has spent a little time in schools over the past 58 years:

  1. Spend some time in public schools. I know your first foray didn’t go well, but do it anyway. Don’t just do the smile and wave visit. Sit in some classrooms for an hour or two. Visit different schools in different places. Your predecessor did a bus tour, but no one will judge you for flying (coach, of course, with the rest of us common folk.) If you are feeling brave, put your name in to substitute teach a few times a year. I did this as a superintendent, and it is an eight-hour master’s degree in education. Visit rural and urban and suburban schools all over the country. I will personally take you on a tour of any school in Kansas. Just give me a call. You have a lot of making up to do. Most of us spent 12 years in a public school, but try to share at least some our experiences.
  2. Ask teachers and students questions and listen to their answers. Ask them how education needs to improve. If you listen carefully, you will learn so much about the challenges faced by educators and students. Then make it your business to help them address those challenges.
  3. Be wary of having a solution in search of a problem. Twelve years ago, the Kansas education commissioner, who wanted more charters and vouchers, was never able to explain why. Like any people business, public schools can improve. But are our communities clamoring for charters and vouchers or do they want less federal intrusion and improved resources. You can let me know what you hear.
  4. Do your homework. America has a proud history of student success that is rooted in public schools. Take the time to learn what we do well, and pay attention to the details of laws like IDEA that have forever changed the lives of millions of people for the better.
  5. Whenever you hear someone’s great new idea, first answer, should this decision be made by at the local level, by a locally elected school board? If the answer is no, maybe ask again.

For the sake of the children of America, and more specifically the children of Kansas, I wish you great success. Learn from our mistakes, and all our children will benefit.

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