JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – It’s been one week since the Missouri State Board of Education relieved Commissioner Margie Vandeven of her duties with a 5-3 vote, and the search for the next commissioner seems to be in the early stages.
It was announced this week that the Board would meet on Thursday to discuss the search process for the next commissioner and discuss the parameters and timeline of the process.
But what exactly are they going to be looking for? The ouster of Dr. Vandeven indicates something other than what she brought to the table, though the former commissioner maintains that Gov. Eric Greitens never spoke to her about what he wanted in terms of education in the Show-Me State.
But the Governor’s actions and appointments led to the eventual dismissal of Vandeven, a move that Greitens called “a major step in the right direction” in the effort to improve public education.
Eddy Justice was one of the appointees who voted in favor of removing Vandeven and saying that Missouri needed to do more to move forward with academic progress.
“Today, we began the process of fulfilling our promise to our kids. Over the next few months, the State Board of Education will search to find a leader for DESE that will pragmatically direct the future of Missouri education in a productive direction that will benefit all our kids and expand our economy,” Justice said in a statement following Vandeven’s ousting. “Those who defend the status quo should be worried. Quality educators should not. I am excited about the future of Missouri’s students, and believe today is the beginning of something big.”
The Missouri Times reached out to Justice to ask what he hoped for with a new commissioner. He said that the long-term status quo is why a new commissioner is needed, citing low reading proficiency numbers across the state.
“First of all, we have to get the parameters and the conceptual correct before we get very far,” Justice said. “I can’t speak for anyone else on the board, but I’ll tell you what some of my priorities are, not in any particular order.
“These are things I’ll be looking for, but not necessarily limited to these things because there are a lot of qualities. One of the things I’ll be looking for is an administrator, someone who can handle running the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, somebody who understands the management of the department, because it’s a large bureaucracy, and someone has to be able to manage that bureaucracy.”
He also says that it is important for the next commissioner to understand the relationship between the legislature and the Governor’s Office, as the funding for DESE comes from the legislature and Governor.
“A productive relationship there is important, and we need somebody who understands that relationship,” Justice said.
He also said it was important for the candidate to understand the accountability process, for all schools, by creating and implementing them in conjunction with the board in a fair and equitable manner.
“There are some who say that charter schools are held to a higher standard unfairly, and there are some that say that charter schools are not held to the same standards as traditional public schools,” Justice said. “It’s our job as the board to hire somebody who will hold all public schools accountable on a level playing field and compare them in a way that actually quantifies successes and failures.”
Right now, that is measured using the Missouri School Improvement Program 5 (MSIP 5). The system measures the schools out of 140 points, and the school is awarded a percentage of that 140 to determine their annual performance rating or APR. Anything above 70 percent APR is considered to be within the range of accreditation, considered to be a performing school. Justin says that he believes there to be about six provisionally accredited schools, and with the provisional accreditation awarded to the Normandy School District, no unaccredited school districts in the state.
But he said that one of the most important qualities will be someone with leadership abilities, who can make the tough decisions when necessary.
Many have speculated that the reason Greitens wanted Vandeven out was to put forward Kenneth Zeff, an Atlanta school administrator and charter schools proponent, as a candidate. According to the St. Louis-Post Dispatch, Greitens paid for Zeff to visit Missouri this past summer. The argument is that Greitens is placing a premium on the importance of charter schools moving forward, and the board is one of the elements in making that mission a success. Justice, however, says that the board’s role is simply to keep the schools accountable.
“In all reality, charter schools are only allowed in Kansas City and St. Louis under the law right now. They’re not allowed anywhere else in Missouri, and in order for them to be either expanded or retracted, it would take action of the legislature. No matter who we hire as the commissioner, and no matter what action the board might take, there is no way, control, or authority that the board or the commissioner has any power to expand or retract charter schools.
“The only thing we can do toward charter schools is no different than what we can do to traditional public schools. It says in the constitution that our job is to create a metric of accountability and implement it.”
As for whether the Governor has spoken with him or given any directions about who he would like to see as the next commissioner, Justice says he has not had any conversations regarding any specific candidate, or the kind of candidate that they should be looking for in the process.
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.