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Eslinger named new Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education


The State Board of Education announced Tuesday that 33rd District Sen. Karla Eslinger, of Wasola in Ozark County, will assume the role as the state’s next commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) effective June 1, 2024, after concluding her work in the Missouri Senate during the 2024 legislative session.

“I am honored that the State Board has entrusted me with this incredible responsibility,” Eslinger said. “My passion for education is a result of my own childhood. 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. Children across Missouri depend on our schools in this same way, and I look forward to ensuring every child in our state receives the quality educational opportunities they deserve.” 

“The department is working hard to serve schools, students, and educators and collectively, we cannot afford to lose this positive momentum,” said State Board President Charlie Shields. “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.” 

“Dr. Karla Eslinger comes with over 30 years of education experience and a strong understanding of public education and its importance for lifelong success,” said Gov. Mike Parson. “She is a tenacious leader who has a vision that will continue to move the needle forward in our Missouri schools. Karla has an excellent reputation for being able to bring people together to get the job done. We are excited to welcome her as part of the Cabinet and look forward to her spearheading the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.”

Eslinger was a classroom teacher, principal, district-level administrator, and superintendent in southwest Missouri, including head of the West Plains R-7 school district, before serving as assistant commissioner in DESE’s Office of Educator Quality. 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. Eslinger then began her time in the Missouri General Assembly in 2018, first serving as a State Representative for District 155 and most recently as State Senator for District 33. She completed her bachelor’s degree in elementary education at College of the Ozarks, earned her master’s and specialist’s degrees at Missouri State University, and completed her doctorate at the University of Missouri. 

Current Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven announced in October that she would be stepping down on July 1, 2024, after more than seven years serving as commissioner.

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

DESE, under Eslinger’s direction, will continue to focus on key strategic priorities, including early childhood education, literacy, safe and healthy schools, workforce development, and teacher recruitment and retention, said officials.

“In my view, we must eliminate barriers to high quality education for all children. We must ensure full transparency and accountability is given to parents and the public. Under my leadership there will be accountability for our children at every level,” said Eslinger in a statement emailed to area media. 

“I support parental choice, public charter schools, rural and urban K-12 and early childhood learning,” she continued. “I have and will continue to advocate for early vocational and technical training, as well as traditional education. We must allow good schools to thrive and continue to succeed, while providing support to educators and addressing concerns we see in the classroom today. Every child deserves to receive the best education according to the expectation and hopes of their parents.” 

Eslinger is the seventh individual, and third woman, to serve as Missouri’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education since the position was created in 1947.