Randy Watson, the next Kansas education commissioner, can only guess where the state’s ideological battles will have landed by the time he officially takes office July 1.
For now, he is still superintendent of the rural McPherson School District and all of its 2,360 students.
But he has been using his vacation time to travel the state in a listening tour that came Wednesday morning to Kansas City, Kan.
He and interim Kansas education commissioner Brad Neuenswander put some 140 people, mostly educators, to work reimagining Kansas schools.
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He is hoping the budget and taxation wars in Topeka won’t burn too much turf before he arrives. He’s optimistic, even. There is a common-ground foundation of people who agree on the importance of a 21st century education, he said.
And the recent overwhelming voter support for local option budget tax increases show people still believe in their schools, he added.
“People hear what’s going on in Topeka, then they see what’s happening locally for schools,” Watson said in an interview aside from the workroom.
“Some people are saying they don’t support education in Topeka, but I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “They’re arguing over what the system should look like. … The session is not over, and when the dust settles, I think they will do the right thing.”
Watson is stepping out of McPherson and into his statewide role in what he called an important window in time.
He reminded the workers at the tables of the storm clouds hanging over them, showing some of the education critics’ signs and billboards.
One showed a child, diminutive and sad-eyed, with the words: “Public education failed me.”
Another reflected the frustration of those who are fighting against the work in Kansas and other states to establish agreed-upon learning standards, saying schools are “rotten to the Common Core.”
Many of these ideological battles are raining condemnation on teachers.
When history looks back at this time, Watson said, “we’ll be embarrassed by the way we treated teachers.”
Better days are coming, he said, imploring the “best and brightest minds” in the room to help see them come.
The work from the 18 sessions plus potentially more meetings will be compiled and brought into a state school board retreat this summer after Watson takes office, board member Janet Waugh said.