Well, that Was Fast
Recently, the commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced that she would be departing her post next summer. For context, DESE is an organization with a $10 billion annual budget and 1,500 employees. It is currently facing the rough waters of declining test scores and declining enrollment, both of which began long before the global pandemic. However, since the pandemic, the crisis of chronic absenteeism and a looming “fiscal cliff” (due to expiring federal stimulus cash flows) have been added to the list of DESE’s challenges.
One would guess that the state board of education would spend the time between the commissioner’s retirement announcement and her June departure looking for a strong leader—ideally one with management skills honed in a similar-sized organization. This leader could bring a fresh perspective and take a hard look at what is going wrong and what is going right in Missouri public education. Perhaps this person would even question the board’s meaningless accreditation this week of all 523 school districts in the state, with the exception of six—even those with fewer than 1 in 10 students able to do grade-level reading or math. Finding this leader should entail a thorough search for and vetting of candidates.
Did the board do that? It did not. Without any public discussion that is readily available on the internet, it seemingly tapped a new commissioner with little to no search in behind-closed-doors meetings. The new commissioner is a former DESE assistant commissioner and a current state Senator. She served as superintendent of two rural districts in Missouri. Regardless of flaws in the search process, she deserves a chance to demonstrate if she can be the leader we need, or not.
The Missouri Board of Education had an opportunity to build public support for its commissioner choice. The board had an opportunity to signal that it would at least consider a potential change agent or someone from outside of the Missouri public education establishment. It could have avoided the questions regarding whether a sitting state Senator should vote on bills or budgets that impact her future role as leader of a department in the executive branch. Time, due diligence, and transparency could have worked in the board’s favor. Why were those elements ignored?