Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer continues to shape top levels of Kansas government amid anticipation that the U.S. Senate may soon confirm Gov. Sam Brownback for an ambassadorship at the State Department.
Although Colyer made the selection, Brownback — who may have just weeks left as governor — issued a news release Tuesday announcing that former Kansas education commissioner Diane DeBacker will serve as education liaison and adviser to the Governor’s Office.
“I think we need … a strong connection, a direct connection between the Governor’s Office and education,” Colyer said in an interview.
DeBacker is taking up a newly created position within the Kansas Department of Commerce. It includes an emphasis on strengthening connections and innovation among schools and the industries and businesses that hope to one day hire their students.
It’s unclear whether Colyer plans to build on a popular Brownback initiative that boosted career learning and opportunities by paying for high school students to study at technical colleges and earn industry credentials before graduation.
In an interview, Colyer indicated he has education-related initiatives waiting in the wings but declined to elaborate.
“That will come at the right time — I’m not announcing anything today,” Colyer said. “We still have one governor at a time.”
Connecting students to work experience — and education policy to workforce development — is a trend in the education sector, in Kansas and elsewhere.
Prior to Colyer selecting DeBacker, Brownback’s administration didn’t employ an education adviser, though it did communicate with the state’s education commissioner. The commissioner works for the elected members of the Kansas State Board of Education, however, and is not part of the governor’s administration.
DeBacker said Monday her position is meant to build bridges between the administration and education field.
Many public school educators are critical of the Brownback administration and Legislature. Kansas is embroiled in a years-long lawsuit — accused of underfunding public education — and in recent years elected officials made changes to teacher tenure, licensure and other statutes that critics perceived as hostile to schools or their employees.
“Those are things that over time can build a wedge,” DeBacker said. “So I think having this position with Commerce, directly working with education, will be a way to start building back some trust.”
DeBacker’s duties will include working with the education department to support the agency’s Kansans Can vision. Kansans Can includes having schools work with students to develop their long-term education and career goals and identify the classes and internship opportunities that can help them on the way.
“We have to open more of those doors” to careers after graduation, DeBacker said. “We know that kids need the real-life experience as they’re making decisions about what they want to do.”
DeBacker headed Kansas’ education department from October 2009 until April 2014. She left for a position as a consultant in the United Arab Emirates, where Abu Dhabi was seeking an international adviser on education matters.
During her time as Kansas education commissioner, DeBacker oversaw the adoption in Kansas of multistate math and English standards called the Common Core, which faced repeated attacks from conservative lawmakers over several years.
The Kansas State Board of Education that employed her included conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats. Though the board disagreed at times on major policy questions, DeBacker maintained support among members from across that spectrum.
Prior to joining the education department, she was associate superintendent of the Topeka-area rural-suburban Shawnee Heights district.
For months, Brownback has been waiting for a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate after President Donald Trump picked him in the summer to become the next leader of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.