New Kansas Education Commissioner Inherits Funding Troubles

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The superintendent of the McPherson school district has been chosen to be the new education commissioner for the state of Kansas.

Randy Watson was chosen for the role by the Kansas State Board of Education last Thursday.  The board also recently saw Janet Waugh, a Kansas City incumbent, win re-election with 53% of the vote.

While in is role as superintendent, Watson was one of the first to receive a waiver for the No Child Left Behind Act, allowing the district to use other testing methods rather than the state-mandated exams.

Watson will not only be leaving behind his position as superintendent but also a position as chairman of an innovative districts program.

The McPherson district was one of the first two in the state to be labeled as innovative under a 2013 law which allows up to 29 of the state’s 286 districts to hold the distinction.  Schools labeled as innovative are then exempt from state public education regulations so long as they present plans to improve student achievement.

“I’m really humbled by the trust the state board has put in me,” Watson said in a telephone interview. “I plan to do what I’ve always done, which is try to bring people together to form a common vision of what Kansans want from their education system and how we deliver that to their students.”

Watson plans on creating a new era for the Kansas public school system, shifting the focus from reading and math test scores and placing it on the “whole student” and becoming successful adults by integrating the K-12 system with higher education.

“The outcomes that we want are a successful young adult, not necessarily reading and math scores,” he said. “Those are just inputs. The next step is to identify the skill sets that make up a successful adult and then go backwards to map that.”

However, Watson will face a number of issues while working toward his goals, which includes future funding for public schools.

According to a recent revenue estimate, Kansas is $278 million behind this fiscal year and is looking to face larger shortfalls in the coming years.

The state is facing a pending lawsuit over the adequacy of current funding.

Kansas education commissioners have historically not been directly involved in these matters, leaving it up to elected members of the state board and other school advocacy groups.  Watson does not plan on doing anything differently during his term.

“It’s certainly the job of the Legislature to fund public education,” he said. “I can weigh in about where we want to go with education. But it’s true that the state has less money than what was predicted six or eight months ago. There are difficult decisions that will have to be made. But I have confidence they will continue to support k-12 education in the future.”