JEFFERSON CITY – The sudden announcement of Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven’s resignation, set for July, has rekindled a contentious debate on the future of public education in Missouri. Vandeven, who has led the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education twice since 2015, is stepping down, presenting a rare opportunity for a leadership change in the department, especially given the recent Republican emphasis on social issues within education.
In response to the announcement, two prominent Republican lawmakers issued an open letter expressing their desire for the next commissioner to prioritize the values and goals of Missouri parents over non-governmental organizations. They also called for eliminating bureaucracy and a mission shift within the education department. In contrast, Democrats, who are in the minority in Missouri, are advocating for the next commissioner to be a strong advocate for public education in the ongoing school-choice debate.
The Process of Selecting a New Successor
Senator Doug Beck, a Democrat from Affton, stated, “I want to see somebody who’s going actually to help our kids and move them forward.” With Margie Vandeven’s impending departure, the search for her replacement is underway, with several names being considered, including former school superintendents Tiffany Anderson, Mike Fulton, John Jungmann, and Frank Killian. However, the process of selecting the new commissioner is complicated by significant changes within the eight-member Board of Education responsible for hiring Margie Vandeven’s successor.
Half of the board’s current members are serving expired terms, and Governor Mike Parson’s team is discussing the possibility of appointing new members before his term concludes in 2025. These nominees will require confirmation from the Missouri Senate, which is expected to be preoccupied with political debates next year as several senators vie for higher office.
Return to Basics
Rep. Doug Richey, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee, publicly announced that he and his fellow co-chair, Sen. Andrew Koenig, had sent an open letter to the Board of Education following Margie Vandeven’s announcement. In their letter, they called for a “return to basics,” expressing concerns that public schools focus shifted from academic excellence to “social reconstruction and social programming.” Richey and Koenig stressed the importance of promoting local control at the parental level and returning the spotlight to classroom instruction. The letter also criticized the push for social-emotional learning to be considered equivalent to academic learning.
Senator Lauren Arthur, a member of the joint education committee, viewed Richey and Koenig’s letter as an acknowledgment that public education in Missouri has faced challenges under Republican leadership for the past two decades. She cited issues like a teacher shortage, insufficient state funding for schools, the adoption of four-day school weeks, and declining test scores as consequences of what she perceives as Republican efforts to undermine public schools. Arthur emphasized the need to undo the damage incurred over the last 20 years instead of using education as a political platform.
Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, a Republican from Shelbina, confirmed discussions with the governor’s office about the expired terms on the Board of Education in light of Margie Vandeven’s resignation. O’Laughlin mentioned that the governor’s office intends to nominate individuals who have broad Senate support, although there’s ongoing debate about whether this should be left to the next governor. Regardless, the selection process for Missouri’s next Education Commissioner is expected to be a critical and highly politicized decision. As Margie Vandeven steps down, Missouri’s education system is poised for a potential transformation, with an impending leadership change and evolving policy debates that will shape the state’s public education direction in the years to come.