It is not unusual for governors to try to influence state boards and commissions – even those constitutionally designed to be independent and apolitical.
It has been going on for years. Governors want control. They want to put their stamp on all of state government. They want the state’s boards and commissions to reflect their positions on policy matters.
This is typically accomplished through the appointment process. Governors appoint political allies and like-minded people to serve on these boards to ensure their administration’s political agenda is carried out.
The appointees often serve as surrogates for the governor. They take their marching orders, usually behind closed doors, from the administration.
What is a little out of the ordinary is the drama surrounding the messy and very public way Gov. Eric Greitens is stumbling in his attempt to influence the Missouri State Board of Education.
Greitens wants to replace the Commissioner of Education, Margie Vandeven, and bring in his own pick to lead the state’s education board, which oversees elementary and secondary education and is responsible for setting the education policies of the state.
Greitens campaigned on expanding charter schools and school choice options. He has argued for education savings accounts, which many feel open the door to school vouchers.
These concepts are anathema to many proponents of public education and have been at the center of education policy debates in the Missouri Legislature for years.
Greitens sees Vandeven as an obstacle to achieving his policy objectives, a holdover who leads a state department that is wary of change.
The problem for Greitens is that the Board of Education, like the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission and the Conservation Commission, was created to be independent and nonpolitical. He doesn’t have the power to hire or fire the leaders of these entities. The state constitution assigns that responsibility to board members.
But the governor can manipulate the process by appointing board members who share his agenda, including getting rid of Vandeven. This is where the governor has encountered resistance.
Several of Greitens’ recent appointees to the board have balked at rushing to replace Vandeven. They have publicly complained of pressure from the governor’s office to fire a commissioner that they have discovered is imminently competent, has the support of the education community and is doing a good job.
One of Greitens’ appointees has already withdrawn over the political pressure. Another has urged his colleagues on the board to delay a special meeting later this month, which was called to presumably dismiss Vandeven. He acknowledged that speaking out will likely cost him his position on the board.
All of this turmoil begs an obvious question: If Greitens’ hand-picked appointees to this independent board are troubled by firing a commissioner who is obviously doing a good job, shouldn’t he listen to them?
Of course he should. But that’s not the way politics works.