Ron Lankford, deputy commissioner of education for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, works with Commissioner Chris Nicastro who has as a background that could be called urban in comparison to Lankford's rural start in Webb City, Mo.
Nicastro started off her teaching in Jefferson County while Lankford’s own career started off in rural southwest Missouri. Nicastro said that she has tried to put together a diverse team within the department to cover all areas of state education effectively.
“It's a nice balance that makes our department more well rounded," Nicastro said.
Both the deputy and the commissioner said they hope to use this relationship to fix the discontent surrounding education. Lankford said some Missouri residents have called government mandates on education similar to the requirements of the new federal health care law, with an effect of dumbing down education.
The mandates Lankford referred to reference the more controversial Common Core Standards that would require national education requirements. The department and other education interests such as the Park Hill School District stood in support of these standards, saying that a uniform set of education requirements would allow for consistent education across the board and better preparation for college and life in the work force. On the other hand, some residents have sounded off at these requirements, saying that they would standardize education and make children into homogenous individuals.
Lankford said Missourians need to realize that regardless of political opinions or background, education has an obligation to prepare students for life ahead whether they participate in private, public or home schooling.
In his position as deputy commissioner of the Education Department, Lankford focuses on fiscal and administrative services. This entails managing the bulk of the budget, which is more than $5 billion per year.
Lankford said his prior experience in education has prepared him for this role and allows him to understand the other officials he works with.
“I understand when school leaders get frustrated about things, I’ve been there,” Lankford said.
Lankford's history in education began with his family. His mother encouraged him to have aspirations for higher education, while his father, who finished school with only an eighth grade education, wanted him to finish college.
Lankford graduated from college with a degree in social studies from Missouri Southern State University and a graduate degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Missouri.
The rest of his family also found themselves involved in education. Lankford’s sister taught for 31 years while his brother gained a degree in teaching and worked as a substitute teacher after retiring from his career at the Missouri Department of Revenue. Lankford said that out of his mother’s eight grandchildren, four became teachers.
Continuing his path in education, Lankford accepted a job in Harrisburg, Mo. as a social studies teacher and guidance counselor.
“Jobs were hard to get, and so counseling was how I wound up with a job,” Lankford said.
In Lankford’s second year in the East Newton School District in Granby, Mo., school officials promoted him to assistant high school principal. In 1977, Lankford made the move to Webb City where he would spend the rest of his 33 years in public education before retiring to join the state Education Department.
As an employee of the Webb City School District, Lankford filled a variety of roles. In his 20s, he served as a high school principal and familiarized himself with his students. Lankford said this gave him a appreciation for young people today. For this reason, he said he often becomes bothered by people discounting the younger generation.
“Don’t punch someone’s ticket based on ages 14 to 19,” Lankford said, “You are probably going to miss something.”
Lankford said he values the ingenuity of students today, and believes that the problems of his generation will be solved by the answers of theirs.
When he was promoted to assistant superintendent, Lankford received experience managing budgets. His superior, the late Superintendent Ron Barton, passed off financial and budgeting responsibilities to Lankford, who gladly took them on.
“I really developed an understanding of budgets and finance but also a philosophy,” Lankford said. “It is not what you have but what you do with what you have.”
In July 1998, Lankford was promoted to superintendent of the Webb City School District. Because he enjoyed dealing with the budget, he maintained those fiscal responsibilities but also took on those of being the main liaison to the community.
As assistant superintendent, Lankford had children in the school system. Later as a superintendent whose children had since graduated, Lankford said he saw his role as a chance to be the primary articulator for the school district.
Lankford said this rounded out his experience as a school official, giving him the necessary experience to graduate into his next role as the state Education Department's deputy commissioner. In the summer of 2010, Nicastro appointed Lankford as her deputy.
From his background in rural education to his current role as state educator, Lankford said there have been many adjustments to make.
For example, in Lankford's entire career in Webb City he oversaw $300 million while as deputy commissioner, he oversees that same amount in just one month.
In addition, the level of accountability was a shift. In Webb City, he was responsible for reporting to seven school board members whereas now he currently deals with matters affecting 3,500 school board members.
“It is much harder to figure out what is the appropriate thing to do on any issue,” Lankford said.
Missouri’s diversity is another challenge that Lankford said is especially difficult.
Out of the 520 school districts in the state, half represent eight percent of the population while the other half represents 92 percent. Lankford said each district is extremely different based on manufacturing, agriculture, entertainment and other drivers of the economy, especially from his homeland of southwest Missouri.
Lankford said his balanced relationship with Nicastro is the key to servicing the entire state. Being the child of a one room school teacher does not prevent him from managing a state full of very different and very deserving students.