JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri education officials are firing back at Republican Governor Eric Greitens’ alleged attempt to oust the state’s top education official, and now some lawmakers are adding their voices to the call.
Last week, Greitens appointed a fifth new member to the State Board of Education, gathering the number of majority votes needed to oust current Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven, who was appointed in 2015.
The five new appointees, who have been on the board for less than four months, are expected to call for the firing of Vandeven. On Friday, Nov. 10, three of those members (Claudia Greim, Doug Russell, and Eddie Justice) requested a special meeting of the board to discuss hiring and firing agency personnel, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That meeting is expected to take place on Tuesday, Nov. 21.
But some of the board members are asking their fellow members to delay that meeting, which is being echoed by the Missouri Association of School Administrators.
“We are extremely concerned about the apparent politicization of the State Board of Education and the interference into the Board’s independence that appears to be occurring on the part of the governor,” the association said in a statement released on Sunday. “A change in leadership at DESE could mean that the nearly two years of work the department and education community has endured in the development of MSIP 6 could also be at risk.
“It is extremely troubling that some board members, despite not having a full grasp of the issues, not having the time to get to know our current commissioner, and without the confirmation of the Missouri Senate, would make such a drastic change in the department.”
State legislators are now joining the call to delay the meeting.
State Rep. David Wood issued the following statement in response, defending Vandeven and Board President Charlie Shields:
“In my time in the legislature, I have served on the House Education Committee, as the vice chair of the House Select Committee on Education, and currently as the chairman of the Joint Committee on Education. In these positions I have found Commissioner Vandeven to be available to the legislature, and she has made sure that the resources of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education are open to the General Assembly. This atmosphere of cooperation has not always existed and I credit Commissioner Vandeven with this change in policy.
With five new members on the Board of Education, it will be important to have a voice of experience in leadership. Charlie Shields has served on the Board of Education and in the legislature. In his time in the legislature, he was a key player in education policy including the current version of the Foundation Formula. I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Shields and I believe he is the right person to lead Missouri’s system of education.
I urge the Board of Education to stay the course and retain Dr. Vandeven as commissioner and Charlie Shields as president of the State Board of Education until after the Senate confirmation hearings on the new members. This delay will give the legislature a chance to determine if these appointments are non-political and have the best interest of Missouri education as their motivation.”
The State Board of Education has general authority over public education and was designed to be independent and non-political.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also reported that Greitens paid $1,596 out of his campaign fund in August to fly Atlanta charter school expert Kenneth Zeff to mid-Missouri as a possible replacement for Vandeven. Greitens campaigned in favor of bringing more charter schools to Missouri, and the two men were White House fellows in the class of 2005-2006 under former President George W. Bush.
In recent months, Vandeven and the state board, as well as the state education department, have been tough on charter schools. While the board cannot do much in terms of closing a charter school, it does approve new applications. And if the Governor wants to increase the number of charter schools in Missouri, removing Vandeven would be a significant move in forging an easier path to do so.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.