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'My job is to do what's best for the children:' State board member defends Vandeven ouster

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams and Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven speak with each other after the State Board of Education granted St. Louis Public Schools full accreditation.
File photo I Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Former Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven speaks with St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams earlier this year. The state Board of Education ousted Vandeven from her job last week.

One of Gov. Eric Greitens’ five appointees to the Missouri Board of Education says disappointing reading, math and social studies scores convinced him that Margie Vandeven needed to be dismissed as the state’s education commissioner.

Amid a bipartisan backlash, Eddy Justice is rejecting the idea that he’s a “puppet” of the governor — or that the move to oust Vandeven “politicized” the board’s proceedings.

“I don’t listen a lot to that rhetoric because of the fact that I believe that we’re here for the good of the kids of Missouri,” said Justice, a Poplar Bluff resident who was appointed to the board earlier this summer. “It doesn’t matter what party you’re in. If it’s not your motive, then you shouldn’t be involved in this.” 

Eddy Justice
Credit Courtesy of the Missouri Board of Education
Eddy Justice

Greitens’ five appointees, who have not been approved by the Missouri Senate, voted 5-3 on Friday to dismiss Vandeven. Since that time, Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, has threatened to filibuster each of the nominations when the legislature returns in January. Romine told the Springfield News-Leaderthat the appointees acted as Greitens’ “puppets,” which Justice strongly disputes. 

“When I was appointed by the governor, I made a commitment to make the decisions that were in the best interest of Missouri students,” he said. “If I make decisions based on my Senate confirmation and not according to what’s at the best interest of Missouri students, then I’ve violated my own commitment and I don’t deserve to be confirmed anyway. Sen. Romine’s assertions that I and the others are puppets is absolutely ridiculous.”

Justice also noted that some of the board members that Greitens replaced were on expired terms— which means that then-Gov. Jay Nixon could have replaced them.

Below are selected questions and answers from St. Louis Public Radio’s Interview with Justice, which have been altered for clarity and length.

Why did you and the other four members appointed by the governor feel that Margie Vandeven needed to be dismissed?  

I can’t speak for the other members. They all have their own motives, I’m sure. My motives are pretty simple: I believe that the culture of our education bureaucracy needed to change. And in order for that to change, we need new leadership. Over 60 percent of Missouri’s fourth and eighth graders cannot read proficiently. That is unacceptable. And to accept that is to accept the status quo. There are a lot of future indicators based on those numbers, some of which include our economic future — as well as the future and numbers of people we incarcerate. So we have got to get to a point where we’re doing a better job of teaching our children to read.

And those numbers of proficiency are not just limited to reading, but go across the board — whether it’s social studies or math or science. We just aren’t cutting the mustard right now.

Was there any indication that Vandeven was doing a substandard job at achieving those goals from your experience on the board?

When I was made aware of the numbers, especially the numbers of children who were not reading proficiently and are not performing proficiently in these subjects that matter, I did some research to try and find out what we were doing to change that. And in my estimation, the effort to change that, if existent, was subpar.

Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens praised the board's decision to oust Vandeven.

Did you interact with either the governor or anybody from his staff about what he wanted you all to do? That’s asking you to respond to the assertion that the governor basically engineered this entire situation. Did he have any influence in how you voted?

I was never asked to vote in any particular way. I was never pressured to do anything. And my appointment came with no conditions. I knew that our education system needed to be improved. And I knew that the culture of educational bureaucracy needed to change. And I firmly believe that when those factors are needed to change, leadership is usually the best place to start.

Like I said before, I was never given any conditions on my appointment and I did what I thought was best for Missouri’s children and our educational system. The governor never had to come to me and ask me to do anything nor did he – or any of his staff.

I’m sure that you’ve heard a lot of feedback from school administrators. It’s not an unreasonable assumption that the opposition to ousting Vandeven stemmed from a fear that her replacement would support expanding charter schools. I’d like you to address that — and also want to know if favorability toward charter schools is a prerequisite in looking for Vandeven’s replacement. 

I absolutely agree with the idea that the vast majority of the opposition to replacing the commission came from a fear of change. Now, whether that’s founded or not, or whether it has roots will only be determined by what happens in the future.

As far as charter schools are concerned, first of all I believe that we, as a board of education, have a toolbox in which tools are put there by the legislature. Charter schools are a tool for the board of education to use to try to  improve education in the state of Missouri. Once again, those tools come from the legislature, not from us. It’s our responsibility as a board to use the tools given to us in the most efficient and effective manner possible. The fear that charter schools are going to become competition in the rest of the state I think is premature at best. Charter schools, in my personal estimation, have a role to play in education in Missouri if implemented properly. And if the charter schools are given the opportunity to be held accountable on a level playing field with traditional public schools.

Dozens of school superintendents line the hallway outside a closed-door Missouri State Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 to show support for Commissioner Margie Vandeven.
Credit File photo I Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Dozens of school superintendents line the hallway outside a closed-door Missouri State Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 to show support for Commissioner Margie Vandeven.

To piggyback on your point, the only way for charter schools to expand out of St. Louis, St. Louis County and Kansas City is the legislature would have to pass legislation allowing that. The new commissioner cannot just approve charter schools by fiat.

Yes, and on top of that, you’re talking about what the new commissioner can and can’t do regarding charter schools. It’s going to be critical for me that we make sure that whoever we hire understands that we’ve got to have a level playing field for these schools. One of the biggest problems I think when comparing traditional public schools with public charter schools is some want them held to a higher standard. And others want to give them the benefit of the doubt instead of having a level playing field.

What is the timeline and process that the board is going to go through to pick a successor to Vandeven?

The only timeline in place right now is we’re pushing to have a conference call next week to answer that question.

Is it possible you might hire somebody in that conference call or is going to require everybody to be in the same place?

All of that is up for discussion. But I will say that I have talked to several people on the board on individual levels. And almost all of them have agreed that we are going to push for an open application period and advertise the position. And then after that open application period has ended, we will review the applications and interview.

Do you expect this will be a national search or will you be looking for people within the state? Or is it a little bit of both?

To serve the children of Missouri best, I think it should be a national search. I think we will definitely look at anybody who is qualified within the state of Missouri. But we have to commit to find the best person for the job. And if that’s from Missouri, great. If it’s not, we have an obligation to try and find the best person for the job.

If the governor comes to you and says, 'I want this person more than anybody,' what's your reaction going to be?

My reaction will be the same as it has been to you: My job is to do what’s best for the kids of Missouri and to find the person that will do the best job. And I will stick to that. I will honor that. And my integrity says that I won’t go in any other direction.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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