School & District Management

Missouri Chief’s Ouster Sparks Political, Legal Aftershocks

By Daarel Burnette II — December 12, 2017 3 min read
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Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, is in pitched legal battles with the state’s educators over the process he used to fire the state’s commissioner of education.

A former board member is suing the governor for appointing him with the idea that he would vote to fire Commissioner Margie Vandeven, only to rescind the nomination after he failed to do so. When new gubernatorial appointees took their seats, the board fired Vandeven on Dec. 1.

The lawsuit comes as governors nationally try to wield their influence over state education policy, much of which recently shifted from the federal government to state governments under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The average tenure of state chiefs, appointed and elected, is down to a little more than two years, causing concern among policymakers and advocates seeking stability in the roiling debates over school choice, testing, and standards.

Months of Jockeying

Greitens, a charter school and voucher supporter elected last year, had in the past several months appointed to the state board five members he hoped would vote to fire Vandeven.

But when at least two of those board members said after being confirmed to the board that they would not vote to fire Vandeven, Greitens rescinded his appointments. Democrats questioned the legality of the process.

The vote to fire the superintendent took place minutes after the confirmation of Greitens’ most recent appointment to the board.

In the wake of the firing, Greitens said that he wanted to reduce administrative-overhead costs, increase teacher pay, and “support public schools.”

“Today, kids, teachers, and families won,” Greitens said in a statement, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Vandeven was hired in January 2015 under former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. During her tenure, she revised the way the state rates its teaching colleges and universities, helped restore the accreditation of the St. Louis and Riverview Gardens districts, and designed the state’s accountability plan under ESSA, which is now being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education.

She had been paid $191,544. The board appointed the state’s deputy commissioner, Roger Dorson, to serve as interim chief until it can find a permanent leader.

“Commissioner Vandeven has been a champion for Missouri’s children and a tireless advocate for improving education, including how we prepare future classroom teachers and meet the needs of our most vulnerable students,” said Chris Minnich, the outgoing executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Her termination drew criticism from Democrats in Missouri.

“The removal of Dr. Vandeven is completely without merit, and anyone who cares about Missouri’s schools should be outraged,” Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh told the Post-Dispatch. “Dr. Vandeven challenged the status quo and got real results for Missouri students, teachers, and taxpayers. It’s a shame to see her ousted by the governor in a political power grab.”

After her firing, Vandeven told the Springfield News Leader that she had never had a discussion with the governor about his education goals.

“I didn’t have an identified person to work with specific issues on,” she said. “I participated in Cabinet meetings, but we didn’t sit down and talk about education policy and what the governor’s mission was for education,” she said. Vandeven also said that the governor had never cited problems with her performance.

The board is expected to start its search for a new state commissioner this week.

Tensions Elsewhere

Separately, in Wisconsin, schools Superintendent Tony Evers, a registered Democrat elected to a nonpartisan position, has fought in court for years with Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, over the state education department’s rulemaking ability. The governor charges that once the state legislature passes laws, the department writes rules that water down the potency of the laws.

Last week, Evers said he won’t use the state’s lawyers to argue his case.

And in Louisiana, schools Superintendent John White is still operating on a month-to-month contract now that Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has appointed several new board members who want to replace him.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Missouri Chief’s Ouster Sparks Political, Legal Aftershocks

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