Every now and then the people prevail over power and privilege. That’s what happened at the November 21 State Board of Education meeting in Jefferson City. The meeting was called for the purpose of terminating Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven and, despite Governor Eric Greitens having packed the State Board of Education with five new members to do his political bidding, they failed.
There was no basis for terminating Commissioner Vandeven. Her tenure at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, first as the deputy commissioner and, since 2015, as the commissioner, has extraordinary. She has brought the Missouri educational community into an effectively functioning coalition committed to successfully educating all children.
To understand why the governor failed in his attempt to hijack public education, you have to review what happened the week prior to the meeting. Over that week the people made themselves heard.
Leading up to the meeting, the board received over 1,400 emails from every corner of Missouri. The emails were from parents and teachers, both active and retired, from superintendents in districts large and small, from school board members, both rural and urban. Social media was alive with criticism of the governor’s ill advised, ham-handed attempt to undermine Missouri public education. The legislative leaders on education in the Missouri General Assembly made their support for Commissioner Vandeven and the Missouri Constitution perfectly clear.
And this is what’s important: There was a clear consensus around the public’s opposition to the governor’s coup and the need to protect what the Missouri Constitution establishes as the governance principles for K-12 public education.
The Missouri Constitution creates an eight-member nonpartisan board – one from each congressional district, and with no more than four from a single political party, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate – to govern public education.
Democratic societies are governed by laws, but they depend upon norms and values. Fundamental to a democracy is a respect for and commitment to the governance structure defined by its constitution. That means that people chosen to govern in a democracy must have a commitment to the rule of law and to the norms that support the practice of democratic self-governance.
In a democracy, the fundamental qualification of fitness for public office is not ideology but character. This is because two essential qualities are integrity and restraint. Integrity means you can be trusted as steward of our common welfare when we are not there to watch. Restraint is required because as a public official you must respect the non-statutory behavioral limits that make up the practice of democracy.
The right side prevailed on November 21. So now what?
Some will argue that we have to get pass this moment and find a way to all work together, basically to normalize what happened. I think that would be the wrong thing to do for public education and would have tragic consequences for our democracy.
The governor is a man with no fixed political principles who is driven by arrogance and ambition. Because of his belief in his superior intellect and his inexperience, he’s clearly too smart to learn anything from this. You need look no further than the emotional, rather incoherent screed he released after the state board meeting.
The boiling frog is a parable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water, which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
If you support public education and the Missouri Constitution, you need to sleep with one eye open and be mindful of the temperature in the pot, because this ain’t over.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weekly by the Missouri Press Association.