Senator with experience as educator named to lead Missouri education department

(The Center Square) – A Republican senator who introduced a bill to raise teacher salaries was named the next commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education  (DESE) on Tuesday.

Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, a former assistant commissioner in the Office of Educator Quality, was announced as the department’s leader by the State Board of Education. She will replace Margie Vandeven, who is leaving on July 1, 2024, after seven years in the position.

Eslinger, whose district includes Douglas, Howell, Ozark, Shannon, Stone, Taney and Texas counties in southwest Missouri, worked in education for more than 30 years. She started as an elementary school teacher, became a building principal, and was superintendent of school districts in Ava and West Plains. She began public service as a state representative for District 155 from 2019 to 2020.

“In 2020, I ran for the 33rd Senatorial District in an effort to be a greater advocate for students across Missouri,” Eslinger wrote in her legislative column on Tuesday. “This is the same sense of public service that guided me when the State Board of Education asked me to consider becoming the next Commissioner of Education … I knew I had a duty and an obligation to continue working for the children of Missouri.”

Eslinger filed 20 bills for the 2024 legislative session, including Senate Bill 955, which proposes increasing the minimum teacher’s salary from $25,000 to $38,000 starting with the 2025-26 school year. The bill would increase the minimum salary for teachers with a master’s degree and 10 years experience from $33,000 to $44,000 beginning in the 2025-26 school year and increasing by $1,000 per year until the 2029-30 school year when the minimum will be $48,000.

“Sen. Eslinger has a heart for students,” Melissa Randol, executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, said in a statement. “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.”

Eslinger earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout and master’s and specialist’s degrees at Missouri State University in Springfield. She completed her doctorate at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

“With her extensive experience and insight into Missouri-specific education issues, Karla is clearly a leader who can hit the ground running and continue to lead the department well,” State Board President Charlie Shields said in a statement announcing the Eslinger’s selection.

Eslinger is the seventh individual and third female to serve as commissioner since the position was created in 1947.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Dr. Eslinger for years and am thrilled to hand the reigns over to such a thoughtful collaborator and skilled practitioner,” Vandeven said in a statement. “Throughout June, Karla and I will work together to ensure a smooth transition, preserving the ongoing excellent work within the department.”

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