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, Dec. 5.
Board President Charlie Shields told reporters Eslinger was the only candidate the board considered.
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.
“We had a set of unique circumstances with a unique candidate,” Shields told reporters. “Once we were presented with the quality of candidate that we had, in Dr. Eslinger, we wanted to move forward very, very quickly.”
In previous years, the board opened applications for the position, but Shields said that was not necessary after they found Eslinger.
He 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.
“There are just different things that I think would be helpful for anyone coming into the position to know and understand about the agency itself,” Vandeven said of the transition. “So I plan to be as helpful as I can and then get out of her way.”
Eslinger received a standing ovation from attendees of the meeting Tuesday.
“We all want the same thing,” Eslinger 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 has been raising money to run for reelection next year. State Rep. Brad Hudson, fellow Republican and Cape Fair resident, was the only other potential candidate with a campaign committee for the 33rd district.
She will continue her work as a state senator until June 1, when she will join Vandeven in the commissioner’s spot and begin the transition.
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 of Missouri schools and a three-year stint as the assistant commissioner in the office of educator quality.
Vandeven and Eslinger worked together within the department during Eslinger’s time as assistant commissioner from 2010 to 2013.
“I’ve seen (Eslinger’s) work,” Vandeven told reporters. “I’ve seen how she is so committed to the children and the family in the state. And I’ve seen that in action.”
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.
She told reporters she turned down a spot on the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee in 2023, saying her focus was “economic development, infrastructure, broadband, roads and that kind of stuff” to help her constituents.
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.”