Does Missouri Need DESE?
Several years ago, I made an interesting discovery—I had been blocked by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on Twitter. A DESE representative assured me it was an accident, but it was interesting that the blocking came soon after I had been critical of DESE. I don’t recall the specific issue at the time; it may have been my opposition to Common Core. The exact issue is a moot point. Over the years, my Show-Me Institute colleagues and I have been critical of DESE on any number of issues.
To name just a few:
- We have criticized the adoption of Common Core standards, especially without sufficient public feedback.
- We have criticized the adoption of various testing regimes, which often provided families with little useful information.
- We have criticized various iterations of the Missouri School Improvement Program, which evaluates and accredits school districts.
- We have criticized the selection of various tests for teacher certification (and the whole certification enterprise).
- We have criticized the quality of DESE’s website and the accessibility of data.
- We have criticized the lack of clarity regarding statistics used for teacher retention and salaries.
- We have argued DESE protects the status quo.
- We have criticized DESE’s lack of leadership as schools were shut down during COVID.
I’ll add another criticism here. The structure of DESE is such that the buck never seems to stop anywhere. The commissioner serves at the pleasure of the state board of education. The state board of education members serve staggered terms, so that a single governor may hold little sway over the board. As such, the governor, the board, and the commissioner escape being held accountable in any meaningful way.
Yet, it is one thing to criticize DESE for failing to perform the duties it should be performing. It is another thing entirely to suggest DESE should not exist at all.
There seems to be a growing chorus of voices on social media calling for the abolition of DESE. It is hard to tell if there is really a movement here or simply the continuous ramblings of a few active Twitter users. Nevertheless, it is a question that deserves consideration—should DESE exist?
Conservatives have long argued that the federal department of education should be abolished. The argument for this is easy to follow—there is no provision for education in the constitution. Thus, it is a state issue.
What is the argument at the state level? It must be that education is a local issue and not a state issue. Here is where the DESE destroyers are wrong. The Missouri Constitution makes it clear that the responsibility to provide an education lies with the state:
A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools for the gratuitous instruction of all persons in this state within ages not in excess of twenty-one years as prescribed by law. (IX Section 1(a))
Moreover, the constitution requires the state to spend 25 percent of general revenue on public education.
With clear constitutional authority and a sizeable budget dedicated to education, the state has need of an agency whose purpose is to distribute funds and assess the diffusion of knowledge. The state has need of an agency such as DESE.
While DESE could do so many things better than it does, there clearly is a role for DESE. Therefore, we should (1) do a better job of defining the proper role and responsibilities of DESE, (2) do a better job of holding DESE accountable for meeting those obligations, and (3) find ways to improve the overall structure of DESE so we can actually tell where the buck stops.
I welcome conversations that focus on these things.