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Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL262.PRB - New Perspectives to the Education Commissioner's Firing
Since the ouster of Missouri's education commissioner, there have been two developments that add some context to this issue.
One involves the governor's failure to cite a specific reason for his efforts to get the state's top education leader fired.
Initially, the governor issued a statement raising general objections to the education system without citing any specific failures of the state's education commissioner.
But the governor may have filled in a missing context during a session with rural newspaper journalists a few days after Greitens' Education Board appointees cast the deciding votes to fire Vandeven.
"What is it specifically that Margie Vandeven had done or didn't do that warranted your efforts to have her removed," I asked.
The governor's response echoed his earlier statements that education is heading in the wrong direction, criticizing both student achievement numbers and school administrator salaries.
His failure to cite a specific reason prompted me to do something I've taught my students to avoid -- using a question to put words into the mouth of a news source.
Too many times, we make the mistake of reporting something from a news source in which the terminology attributed to the source actually began with the words in the questions we asked.
But I thought Greitens' general non-response to a specific question warranted an exception to the rule against putting words in a source's mouth.
So, I asked, "am I hearing you say that essentially your problem with the former commissioner is a failure to lead?"
"There is a failure to get results," was the governor's immediate response.
Bingo. For the first time, a specific reason.
You may or may not agree, but there's now a specific issue for debate.
Vandeven's supporters argue she shouldn't be held responsible for things beyond her control.
But Greitens is not the first public figure I've heard say that leaders are expected to lead and seek changes they don't have direct power to make.
That session with the governor illustrates how public leaders can benefit from exposing themselves, on a regular basis, to the tough questions from journalists.
So many times I've found that tough questions can help them refine their answers to make what they really mean more understandable to the general public.
It's not my job as a journalist to help politicians improve their answers. But it is my responsibility to try, as best I can, to seek to understand and report what they mean.
Sometimes, that requires putting words in their mouths, as long as I start the question with something akin to "did you mean..." to make clear the purpose of my question.
How different might have been the critical stories about the governor's efforts to oust the education commissioner if his explanation had been a "failure to get results" -- rather than the governor's Education Board appointees walking out of the meeting refusing comment.
The state auditor added another context to this education issue a few days after Vandeven's dismissal.
Democrat Nicole Galloway's education audit contained data that backed one of the Republican governor's main arguments about education administrator salaries.
The audit reported that spending for public school administration rose faster than teaching in recent years.
That's the governor's argument. But the audit also found that for charter schools, which Greitens supports, administrative costs also were rising faster than teaching.
All this foreshadows what I suspect will be a major issue for the 2018 legislative session -- one beyond confirmation of the education board members who voted to fire Vandeven.
Should the state be tampering with the salaries of local schools?
One state Education Board member warned that pitting the salaries of teachers against administrators disrupted school boards.
Should the state expand the number of charter schools or strengthen their standards?
The overriding issue involves diverting public funds from traditional public schools to charter schools, private online courses and vouchers for private education.
Some suggest that given Greitens' significant campaign funding from school-choice advocates, one of his real motivations has been to transform the Missouri Education Department into an agency more supportive of alternatives to local public schools.
It's all going to make for what I suspect will be a fascinating 2018 legislative session.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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