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Opinion: New answers on education commissioner's firing

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Since the ouster of Missouri's education commissioner, there have been two developments that add some context to the issue.

One involves the governor's failure to cite a specific reason for his efforts to get the state's top education leader fired.

Initially, the governor issued a statement raising general objections to the education system without citing any specific failures of the state's education commissioner.

But the governor may have filled in a missing context during a session with rural newspaper journalists a few days after Greitens' Education Board appointees cast the deciding votes to fire Vandeven.

"What is it specifically that Margie Vandeven had done or didn't do that warranted your efforts to have her removed?" I asked.

The governor's response echoed his earlier statements that education is heading in the wrong direction, criticizing both student achievement numbers and school administrator salaries.

His failure to cite a specific reason prompted me to do something I've taught my students to avoid – using a question to put words into the mouth of a news source. Too many times, we make the mistake of reporting something from a news source in which the terminology attributed to the source actually began with the words in the questions we asked.

But I thought Greitens' general nonresponse to a specific question warranted an exception to the rule. So, I asked, "Am I hearing you say that essentially your problem with the former commissioner is a failure to lead?"

His immediate response: "There is a failure to get results."

Bingo. For the first time, a specific reason.

You may or may not agree, but there's now a specific issue for debate.

Vandeven's supporters argue she shouldn't be held responsible for things beyond her control. But Greitens is not the first public figure I've heard say that leaders are expected to lead and seek changes they don't have direct power to make.

That session with the governor illustrates how public leaders can benefit from exposing themselves, on a regular basis, to the tough questions from journalists. So many times I've found that tough questions can help them refine their answers to make what they really mean more understandable to the general public.

How different might have been the critical stories about the governor's efforts to oust the education commissioner if his explanation had been a "failure to get results" – rather than the governor's Education Board appointees walking out of the meeting refusing to comment.

The state auditor added more context to the education issue a few days after Vandeven's dismissal. Democrat Nicole Galloway's education audit contained data that backed one of the Republican governor's main arguments about education administrator salaries. The audit reported that spending for public school administration rose faster than teaching in recent years.

That's the governor's argument. But the audit also found for charter schools, which Greitens supports, administrative costs also were rising faster than teaching.

All this foreshadows what I suspect will be a major issue for the 2018 legislative session – one beyond pending confirmation of the Education Board members who voted to fire Vandeven.

Should the state be tampering with the salaries of local schools?

One state Education Board member warned that pitting the salaries of teachers against administrators disrupted school boards.

Should the state expand the number of charter schools or strengthen their standards?

The overriding issue involves diverting public funds from traditional public schools to charter schools, private online courses and vouchers for private education.

Some suggest that given Greitens' significant campaign funding from school-choice advocates, one of his real motivations has been to transform the Missouri Education Department into an agency more supportive of alternatives to local public schools.

It's all going to make for what I suspect will be a fascinating 2018 legislative session.

Phill Brooks is director of the Missouri School of Journalism’s State Government Reporting Program. He has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps, and he manages the multimedia website on state government news, MDN.org. Brooks can be reached at column@mdn.org.

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Chris

Nice wirte up. thanks for ths info and looking forward to continued coverage of the developments to come.

Friday, December 15, 2017
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