Gov. Greitens’ Clumsy Crusade

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

When Eric Greitens started his political career by winning the race for Missouri governor last fall, he told voters he wanted to do things differently in Jefferson City. But his clumsy, unsuccessful attempts to fire the state’s education commissioner show clearly that different isn’t always better.

Since Margie Vandeven became Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education in 2014, schools in the state have shown real progress. A lot of work remains to be done, but troubled schools like those in the St. Louis, Riverview Gardens and Normandy districts have demonstrated steady improvement on the state’s annual report card.

Apparently, that track record was not good enough for Greitens. Since taking office as Missouri’s first Jewish governor, he has staged a relentless campaign to oust Vandeven by packing the supposedly independent state Board of Education with nominees whose list of marching orders was headed with Job 1: a new commissioner.

Fortunately, that scenario hasn’t come to pass. Even after he named last-minute replacements when some of his hand-picked board members decided that Vandeven should stay, Greitens couldn’t get a majority of the board to do his bidding. Last week’s tie vote lets the commissioner stay in office, at least for now. It also shows once more that making bold pronouncements on the campaign trail is a lot easier than making ill-advised policy changes once you’re in office.

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Instead of his full-court press against Vandeven and a push for a successor who reportedly would favor increasing the presence of charter schools in the state, the governor should pay more attention to Missouri’s education professionals. They overwhelmingly back the commissioner and her performance.

In the words of Melissa Randol, head of the Missouri School Boards Association:

“This effort by the governor should be troubling to all Missourians. We must preserve the integrity of our state constitution to ensure the commissioner does not become a political appointee of the governor.” 

Greitens appears to be taking a page from the Donald Trump playbook in his dealings with both legislators and the media. He has made his appointments to the state board while the Legislature is not in session so they could take their seats without being formally approved. And he has not been very forthcoming about the reasons he wants to get rid of Vandeven.

After the latest setback in his crusade, he did release a rambling statement (http://bit.ly/2AHKqE2) talking about how “insiders and bureaucrats will lie” and that when he worked to increase money for public schools, the added funds went to school administrators, not classroom instruction.

“There are a lot of people committed to the status quo,” Greitens’ statement said. “They’ve been willing to harass and intimidate anyone who stands up to them. That won’t stop us from doing what’s right. We’re fighting to get results for Missouri teachers and students.”

What that viewpoint ignores is that if charter schools expand across the state, there will be still more administrators earning public funds, because no matter how many charters open, few districts are likely to see so many families choose charters that existing school districts would shut down.

And Greitens needs to show more respect for traditional public schools. After all, his education in the Parkway School District helped prepare him to become a Rhodes scholar, Navy SEAL and winning rookie politician. Countless other public school attendees have had similar success after graduation.

Charter schools have their place in a wide range of education options. But Missouri’s 500-plus school districts need full and fair funding, not an emphasis on a choice plan that will drain resources from the classrooms where most of the state’s nearly 900,000 public school students learn every day.

What makes this a “Jewish” issue? For Jews, a strong,  quality, public education has always been among priority concerns. Solid public education helped immigrant Jews adjust to life in America.  

It is highly regrettable that Greitens would undermine the integrity of the public schools. He is capable of more enlightened leadership, such as when he mobilized the cleanup at the vandalized Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City. We hope that Gov. Greitens will learn a similar lesson with the rebuff on education in Missouri.

If the governor really feels the need to replace Vandeven, he should at least follow traditional procedures by waiting until the General Assembly reconvenes in January, then nominating board members who are subject to the usual constitutional confirmation process.

Despite his desperate efforts to bypass that process, Greitens has failed in his attempt to fire the state’s education commissioner. The next meeting of the state board, at the end of this week, should see the same result as before. Then, the governor should concede defeat in a fight that he never should have picked in the first place and concentrate on more productive ways to improve public schools in Missouri.