JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- School groups around the state are uniting in opposition to Gov. Matt Blunt's latest appointment to the State Board of Education, a woman who has advocated for efforts to help children attend private schools.
Blunt in October named Donayle Whitmore-Smith of St. Louis to the board that oversees state policy governing public schools.
Whitmore-Smith runs School Choice Missouri and led a rally at the Capitol for failed legislation that would have provided tax breaks for contributions to groups that help students attend private schools. She also founded the Ptah Academy of Arts and Science in the St. Louis area, which has closed.
Organizations representing teachers, administrators, school boards and parents are fighting the nomination. She must be confirmed by the Senate after it returns in January, but already attended one board meeting in November, as many appointees do while awaiting confirmation.
Whitmore-Smith said people should focus on children, not her background, and said she would not harm public schools.
"I did not join the state Board of Education under any pretense that I could do anything derogatory toward our public schools," she said. "My full intent is to do whatever I can to make them as solid as possible, and make sure that quality is for everybody in our state."
But her background makes the education community nervous.
"To have someone like that sitting on the State Board of Education we think is not appropriate," said Brent Ghan of the Missouri School Boards' Association and a spokesman for the Education Roundtable, which includes the state's main public education groups. "State board members should be advocates. We question whether this person can be an advocate, given her history of supporting issues that undermine public schools."
Ghan said Monday that the Education Roundtable has been around for at least a decade and never before opposed a nominee to the state board.
Blunt is aware of the criticism but wants her nomination to reach a hearing before the Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee, a spokesman said.
"The governor feels like we've got bureaucrats who are attacking her integrity," spokesman Brian Hauswirth said. "She has a background obviously where she has publicly supported vouchers, but she also understands the importance of public schools. He feels like she would be a champion for the children."
Key to the debate is the position of Sen.-elect Jeff Smith, a St. Louis Democrat who represents Whitmore-Smith.
The senator representing a governor's nominee typically sponsors the appointment, and opposition from that person traditionally has meant the governor pulls back and chooses a different nominee.
Smith said Monday he hasn't decided whether to support the nomination.
"I appreciate the nominee's passion towards urban education, but I do have some concerns about her relative lack of experience in public education," he said.
Smith said Whitmore-Smith's support for vouchers won't be the deciding factor, but that education groups' concerns do weigh into his decision-making.
"I have not been a supporter of school vouchers, but I'm not making that a litmus test for the appointment," he said. "I want to look at the totality of her record and experience."
Hauswirth said Blunt would withdraw the nomination if Smith opposes her.
Whitmore-Smith said she has spoken with the incoming senator and believes he will give her a chance.
Sen. Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, who leads the appointments committee, said Whitmore-Smith's background should not exclude her. He also said he wants to hear ideas from the public education groups to improve struggling urban districts.
"We hear a lot about what they're against, but what are they for?" he said. "I'm open to any idea that improves academic performance and achievement in urban schools. I don't think her views should disqualify her from consideration."
Blunt tried to appoint Whitmore-Smith to the St. Louis Election Board last year, but Democratic Sen. Pat Dougherty, whom Smith replaces, blocked her nomination, after questioning her Democratic credentials.
On the Net:
Board of Education: http://www.dese.mo.gov/stateboard