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Vandeven, returning as Missouri's education commissioner, wants to focus on future

Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven, right, looks over a student's work during a tour of the Jennings School District.
Bill McDonald, Jennings School District via DESE
Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven, right, looks over a student's work during a tour of the Jennings School District. Vandeven returns as commissioner Wednesday just over one year after her unpopular removal by then-Gov. Eric Greitens.

It’s Margie Vandeven’s first day at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, but she shouldn’t need any help finding her office. That’s because Vandeven is returning as the state’s top schools chief just over a year after her unpopular removal from that same job.

Vandeven was well-liked in the public education world and by the members of the state school board that then-Gov. Eric Greitens wasn't able to replace. After her removal Dec. 1, 2017, Greitens’ school board picks failed to install a replacement before running into opposition from the state Senate, leaving the opportunity for the board to bring Vandeven back.

Vandeven says the exhaustive effort by Greitens and his appointees to fire her is all in the past now and the year has been a learning experience.

She returns to supervise the education of 900,000 children in more than 500 school districts. DESE is overhauling its school accountability program, known as the Missouri School Improvement Program, and working to stabilize the assessments given to students each year.

St. Louis Public Radio's Ryan Delaney spoke with Vandeven as she was preparing to return to Jefferson City. Vandeven spent the past year working at the SAS Institute in North Carolina as the director of education partnership.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Ryan Delaney: You said when you were given your old job back that there was still a lot of work to be done. I'm curious what that work is and if any of your priorities, the things that you had started, if you saw them have to go on hiatus because the department was without a permanent director or a functioning board for so long?

Margie Vandeven: Whether or not some things had to go on a hiatus due to the lack of board, I think primarily anything that needed any form of policy approval, particularly I know there are some big decisions that are on the horizon about accountability systems and what makes a great school. All of that needs to come before the State Board of Education for approval so that was placed largely on hold for some time.

Delaney: On accountability and performance of schools, I've already seen some districts warning their parents about when student test scores come out not to try to compare them to last year because this test that a lot of students sit down for has changed four times in the last five years. The release of a lot of that data about school performance and accountability is way delayed — almost 10 months from when these kids took their tests. How do you work to restore some stability and possibly even credibility to the accountability system?

Vandeven: I think no one would advise that you have four tests in five years. I think it's very wise to caution against comparing any results from prior years to the current year results that will be released. All of that is behind us now. I'm very hopeful that now that we have our Missouri standards in place with Missouri tests that there will be a level of stability that we can continue to rely upon in moving forward. Anytime there is a transition in standards there is going to be some analysis on the tests. It was determined to do that analysis on the back end which is why schools are getting their results at this late date but that should rectify itself with the stability of a new test, or when there's no longer a new test.

Delaney: According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, only about 15 percent of school districts in Missouri and about 2,600 kids are going to preschool through state-funded programs. Gov. Mike Parson was recently in our studios and talked about expanding early childhood education being a big priority of his. Some districts like here in St. Louis, (St. Louis Public Schools), have cobbled together a whole bunch of funding sources to offer universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds. But that's not the norm in the state. I'm curious how you expand early childhood education and how you work with the governor to get more young kids into classrooms sooner?

Vandeven: I want to start by saying I'm absolutely thrilled to hear about the support that Gov. Parson has been showing for early learning. I think it's absolutely essential that we give our infants and toddlers and families the support they need. We're learning more and more all the time about the brain's development and how most of the majority of the brain develops before age 5. And if we're really serious about closing the achievement gap we absolutely must start early. So how would I go about making sure that happens? One of those concerns is funding and making sure that we help the community, help the state, understand the absolute essential need for providing early learning opportunities and then making sure that once we do have these systems in place that they are of high quality.

Delaney: I want to talk a little bit more about the achievement gap. There are school districts in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas where white students are two, three, even six-times more likely in some cases to be in gifted and talented programs or AP courses. What role does the state have in closing that gap and making sure all students are given the same opportunities to excel in schools?

Vandeven: I think the state can play a big role in ensuring that every child has access to these learning opportunities that you're talking about. One of the first things that the state can do is really help identify the problem. Knowing the issue exists is really the first step and the state is well equipped to be able to do that. And then the next step is how do we get in and help solve that? A lot of that will take place at the local level and some of our local school districts and charter schools are doing a phenomenal job at addressing that and others are really getting started and making this a priority.

Delaney: Let's shift to how kids get to school and transportation and money for busing. This is a big issue for rural school districts. In particular, the fact that the state has only reimbursed school districts on average about 15 percent of busing costs the last several years when that number should be closer to 75 percent. The department put in its budget request for this year a phase up to getting at least much closer to that 75 percent reimbursement rate. But when you also talk about the funding formula and more money for early childhood education, there's obviously only so much money and so many things that can be a No. 1 priority. So where does increasing money for busing rank on your priority list and how do you get that up?

Vandeven: Again I think it's generating the understanding that transportation is significantly underfunded and it is a significant need. You mentioned the rural schools who are certainly dependent upon that transportation, but it's really no different for some of our city schools where this is a real safety issue for our children. So helping generate the understanding that transportation is significantly underfunded. The priority is typically on fully funding the formula — which obviously we would support because that gives the districts flexibility in knowing how to use those particular dollars that are sent their way, and transportation is earmarked — specifically for transportation. But the part that we need to help educate (the public on) is if transportation isn't funded then the districts have to come up with that money from somewhere else. So they will take it from the formula in order to cover transportation. It's not something they can simply not choose to do. It's in the law; they're required to transport children and they want to because it's a safe way of transporting and getting our children there. So we need to make sure that people do see the distinction between fully funding the formula and transportation dollars and knowing that they are both of utmost importance.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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