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Karla Eslinger named Missouri’s next education commissioner

Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023 at the Missouri Statehouse in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, in January 2023 at the Missouri Statehouse in Jefferson City.

State Sen. Karla Eslinger will be Missouri’s next commissioner of education beginning in June, the State Board of Education announced during its meeting Tuesday.

The board has met in closed session twice since the last public meeting — in which current Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven revealed her plans to retire at the end of June. The board also began its meeting Tuesday in closed session for an hour.

Board President Charlie Shields said the board has used the three closed-door meetings to discuss the transition between commissioners. Vandeven and Eslinger will overlap through the month of June.

Eslinger received a standing ovation from attendees of the meeting Tuesday.

“We all want the same thing,” she said of various education stakeholders. “We want our children to be successful. We want our communities to be successful. We want our state to be successful. I believe in intentionally working directly with and respecting each of these various groups.”

Eslinger, a Republican from Wasola, is in her first term as state senator for the 33rd District and had filed to run for reelection next year. State Rep. Brad Hudson, fellow Republican and Cape Fair resident, was her only opponent as of Monday evening.

Her experience in education ranges from her beginning as an elementary-school teacher in a rural Ozark County school, through the ranks of administration in a couple Missouri schools and a three-year stint as the assistant commissioner in the office of educator quality.

State Board member Donald Claycomb, of Linn, said “her experience and her credentials are probably hard to beat, if not impossible to beat” during the announcement.

Her latest role before serving in Missouri’s General Assembly was as a senior analyst for education services with the AEM Corporation, where she advised U.S. Department of Education officials, according to her Senate bio.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from The College of the Ozarks before attaining a master’s degree in education and a specialist’s degree in superintendency and the educational system from Missouri State University. She holds a doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis from the University of Missouri-Columbia, as listed in her Senate bio.

Her two daughters are also Missouri educators, with one serving as a principal and the other as a teacher, according to her Missouri Ethics Commission filing. Eslinger, talking to the board Tuesday, said her “whole family is public school people.”

“In such an environment as this, we are incredibly blessed to have such a strong candidate, and when that blessing is before you, you have to move with deliberate speed,” Pamela Westbrooks Hodge, a board member from Pasadena Hills, said during the meeting. “I just don’t think we could ask for a candidate with a richer cadre of experiences.”

In the 2023 legislative session, Eslinger filed five bills related to education, with a particular focus on education funding. None of these bills made it to the Senate floor, though provisions of legislation signed by the governor mirror a bill she wrote on nursing education.

Charter-school and tax-credit-scholarship advocates are eyeing the position of commissioner to expand their programs in Missouri. In 2021, Eslinger voted against the bill that created the state’s K-12 tax-credit scholarship program.

Co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Education Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, and Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, wrote a letter to the State Board of Education laying out the values they expect for the next commissioner.

“We need to downsize (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), focus singularly upon classroom instruction, value ed choice, remove woke activism, and regain parental trust and confidence,” Richey wrote on social media, with the co-chairs’ letter.

Eslinger described herself as a supporter of “good schools” when talking to the board Tuesday.

“I support work towards good schools, period. Good schools,” Eslinger said to the board. “I support parent choice. I support public charters. I support rural schools, I support urban schools, K-12 systems, early childhood education, you name it.”

Eslinger’s 2023 bills included legislation that, if passed, would’ve reduced funding for charter schools in years that the state transportation aid is not fully funded.

She also proposed the creation of a patriotic and civics class for teachers with a $3,000 incentive for educators who complete the program. Koenig asked for a similar course in a multifaceted bill that passed the Senate early in the 2023 session before dying at legislative deadline.

Board members praised Vandeven’s work as a “strong foundation” for Eslinger to build on.

“We start at the basis of where Dr. Vandeven has taken this department,” board member Peter Herschend, of Branson, told fellow members.

Vandeven said she was “thrilled” with the board’s pick.

“I have worked with Dr. Eslinger in various capacities over a decade,” she said after the announcement. “So I have seen her proven leadership, and I understand her commitment to the students in Missouri, which is so very essential.”

This story will be updated and was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Annelise Hanshaw is an education reporter for The Missouri Independent.