blank faceNow that Chris Nicastro is out as Commissioner of Education, the search for her replacement is happening in earnest behind the scenes. What criteria will be used to evaluate candidates? Who should be put forth as a candidate? What would you like to see as the priorities for the next Commissioner?

St. Louis Public Radio interviewed several inside the system types on their thoughts about Nicastro’s record and what they think priorities should be for the next Commissioner.

Don Senti of EducationPlus focused on fixing unaccredited or provisionally accredited districts like Normandy. What happened there shows that simply allowing students to choose to leave does not solve the problem.  “Twenty percent left, 80 percent stayed, the district went bankrupt and the district got worse.”

Kathleen Sullivan Brown, a professor of education at UMSL thought Nicastro got lost in defining the problem. “If you define the problem as teachers and teachers unions, then obviously you’re going to go away from them. If you define the problem more narrowly as the consequences of intense and concentrated poverty in a handful of school districts in the whole state, then I think you approach that very differently.”

Governor Nixon has laid out what he thinks the priorities for the next Commissioner should be, “state funding, higher standards and additional pre-school.”  Wow those all sound like federal priorities ripped right from the Race To The Top Application. If he has his way we will have the same problem with the next Commissioner as we had with the last.

State Funding – We already allocate 42% of the state budget to education. It is the largest single budget line item behind Medicaid funding. If that percentage isn’t right, can someone tell us just how much of what we spend as a state should be dedicated to education? And can they then justify that number in light of the Cato education spending graph?


Or maybe the Governor is talking about getting more federal funding into the state for education, with all the strings attached to that funding. Does anyone else have a problem with the state going after more federal seed money that commits us to long term programmatic spending that we can’t afford? Isn’t that exactly what we are looking at with focus #3, pre-school?

Pre School – Where is the hue and cry from the Missouri public for more preschool? Nationwide, more than 65% of kids already attend a pre-school, many of them for just a couple days a week which is fine with their parents. It is a place to practice social skills and play with others their age. But the intense national focus on pre-school is already changing that environment, and not in ways that parents are happy about.

David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child and The Power of Play  says that we are moving away from the view of preschool as a place for limited early socialization and towards one that makes it “an educational thing. We got it turned around and are learning the academic things before we learn the social skills that are prerequisites for formal education.”

Why is that happening? Because we are bringing pre-schools into the public schools, and once you get public funding we are all about the accountability for that money.

“The only way for school programs, including preschool programs, to show accountability of public funding for education is through testing,” says Diane Flynn Keith, founder of Universal Preschool. “The only way to prepare children for standardized testing is to teach a standardized curriculum. Standardized preschool curriculum includes reading, writing, math, science, and social sciences at a time when children are developmentally vulnerable and may be irreparably harmed by such a strategy.”

Is that what the Missouri public wants, standardized testing for 3-4 year olds?

Governor Nixon may be out there ringing the clarion call for public preschool because there is money to be had for such a position. There is currently another federal grant program for funding for preschool with an application deadline that is coming up next week.

The Obama administration has made universal preschool a priority. “Let’s make it a national priority to give every child access to a high-quality early education….Let’s give our kids that chance,” said Obama in 2013 in front of a brightly colored banner that read, “PRESCHOOL FOR ALL.” He called for this, despite the fact that the data do not point to a universal benefit from pre-school. But if your mantra is to never leave money on the table, you can bet Missouri is going to go for universal pre-school funding so the next Commissioner better have that on his/her agenda.

Higher Standards – Given what we are seeing in the work groups established to develop state K-12 standards I guess you could say that “Higher” is a relative term. Many of the educators there seem to be stuck on maintaining the common core standards because they have invested so much in learning how to teach them. But there are  standards out there that have been rated higher than common core and have a track record of student performance to prove it like California, Indiana and Massachusetts. It would be nice to have a Commissioner who actually supported higher standards and was willing to lead the work groups to develop those.

The State Board of Education is the body responsible for selecting the next Commissioner of Education. Maybe they need to hear from the public about what we want in a leader for all of K-12 education in the state. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section, but I also encourage you to send them to the SBE who can be reached at:

Phone    573-751-4212
Fax    573-751-8613




Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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