Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, will head the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). The Missouri Board of Education has selected Eslinger to serve in the top education spot.
“My passion for education is a result of my own childhood,” she said in a news release. “My family faced poverty and moved a lot — and the one constant in my life was school. I’m certain my future would look very different if not for my public school education.”
Eslinger plans to become commissioner on June 1. She will replace Commissioner Margie Vandeven, who plans to resign July 1.
“We want a very smooth transition,” said Missouri Board of Education President Charlie Shields. “We want the next commissioner, Dr. Eslinger, to hit the ground running.”
Eslinger is no stranger to the education world. She was a classroom teacher, principal, district-level administrator, and superintendent in southwest Missouri before serving as assistant commissioner in DESE’s Office of Educator Quality.
“Accountability is the cornerstone of my leadership,” said Eslinger. “In a previous role that I have had, I’ve always relied on high quality assessments, a system that provides insight, informed practice and truly measures learning, so our tax dollars, our investment is sound.”
In 2013, she transitioned into serving schools nationwide, representing the U.S. Department of Education and supporting schools participating in the Race to the Top grant program. The program is designed to spur and reward innovation and improvements in schools.
According to Eslinger, she will continue to serve as senator of the 33rd Senatorial District through the Second Regular Session of the 102nd General Assembly.
“What we have to do is always just rely on the experts to give us guidance, so we do not complicate things with those things such as conflict of interest. I will be very, very careful about what I do, what I don’t do. I don’t want to create a problem,” she said. “I want to continue be of service to my district and also to be of service to the education community.”
During Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, President Shields, of St. Joseph, said multiple sources recommended Eslinger for the job. He liked the idea and gave her a call.
“The most important job of the State Board of Education is to pick the next commissioner,” said Shields. “So, I think we were in a situation where we had a set of unique circumstances with a unique candidate. Once we were presented with the quality of candidate that we had, Dr. Eslinger, we wanted to move forward very quickly.”
Shields said no one approached him expressing their interest in the job.
“This is a tough job,” said Shields. “I think that says a lot – the fact that even though we announced the opening, there wasn’t a bunch of people emailing me, calling me and saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to be considered for that.’”
Eslinger said the commissioner job was not a position she had on her radar.
“I didn’t put it on a list or talk to my family,” she said. “It was one of those things where I get a phone call. That’s what starts the idea. Truly, as I said in my earlier comments, it took me a little while to decide I think this is a good fit.”
Eslinger said several friends and relatives have asked her why she is committing to this role.
“And I gave that question a lot of thought,” said Eslinger. “You know, usually when people ask me to do something, I’m more than willing but this was a step and I thought what can I do to help children succeed in our state? Basically, it came down to….so basically it came down to I can lead.”
Board member Kerry Casey, of the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, said Missouri needs to be an education leader.
“This is our time in Missouri to make a difference for all of the children of Missouri – for all of the students, for the families, for the educators. It’s our time to build on all of the hard work and the leadership that Commissioner Vandeven has provided to us,” said Casey.
Board Vice President Carol Hallquist, of Kansas City, said Eslinger checks all of the board’s boxes.
“We wanted someone who really knew how to lead, somebody who understands DESE, and what they were getting into. This is a really, really hard job. Someone who’s an educator and not only is an educator, but she’s an educating innovator and has initiated and led many innovative programs,” said Hallquist.
Commissioner Vandeven announced in October that she would be stepping down on July 1, 2024, after more than seven years in the driver’s seat.
Vandeven and Eslinger worked together at DESE from 2010-2013.
“I think she’s a great fit,” said Vandeven. “I know the heart that is in Senator Eslinger. I have seen her work. I have seen how she is so committed to the children and the family in this state. I plan to be as helpful as I can and then get out of her way, so she can do what she wants to do to make sure we move this agency and our state forward.”
A news release says under Eslinger’s direction, DESE will continue to focus on key priorities, such as early childhood education, literacy, safe and healthy schools, workforce development, and teacher recruitment and retention.
As commissioner, Eslinger will collaborate with stakeholders to improve educational opportunities for Missouri’s nearly 900,000 public school students. The Missouri School Boards’ Association is one group that will want to with with her.
“Senator Eslinger has a heart for students. Her experiences make her uniquely qualified to lead the Department, and she has demonstrated her ability to work for the betterment of our schools with leaders across the state. MSBA looks forward to working with her as she takes on this new role,” said Melissa Randol, Executive Director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association.
Eslinger is the seventh person, and third woman, to serve as Missouri’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education since the position was created in 1947.
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