Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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StarTribune Editorial: Yecke & Molnau/Outside the mainstream

April 11, 2004


In more ordinary, more civil times, we might be tempted to question, even deplore, the DFL's threat to use the confirmation process to jettison two of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's commissioners. But these are not ordinary times. And Cheri Pierson Yecke and Carol Molnau are not ordinary cabinet commissioners.

While each is clearly qualified, Yecke's views and policies on education and Molnau's on transportation lie well outside the mainstream. Nothing in Pawlenty's campaign led voters to expect the extreme course these commissioners have steered. In Minnesota, as in Washington, Republicans ran campaigns from the center, won elections without getting a majority of votes, and now are governing from the extreme right.

This is an arrogant formula that invites rage from opponents and encourages the confirmation tactic now employed against Yecke and Molnau.

Start by understanding that the Senate has legitimate advice-and-consent powers meant to check a governor's excesses. To a wide range of Minnesotans, not just to Democrats, the policies of these commissioners are excessive. Few imagined that Pawlenty would select an education commissioner whose views and management style would so thoroughly antagonize teachers, administrators, parents and educational experts. Few knew he would hand the transportation portfolio to his lieutenant governor, who for years led the Legislature against any long-term commitment to a balanced roads/transit solution to metro traffic congestion. Pawlenty's thin mandate -- 44 percent -- allows for a right-of-center administration, certainly, but not a radical one. Properly seen, this is not a Democratic-Republican confirmation battle but one that pits pragmatic, mainstream Minnesotans of both parties against the ideological right.

This is made clearer by the radio talksters and taxpayers groups whose mission is to spread venom and misinformation in ersatz support of the administration. Their definition of "fact" is creative at best, cynical at worst. The Taxpayers League's suggestion, for example, that the state buy used cars for poor people rather than settle the transit strike, and its assertion that nearly as much is spent on transit as roads (actually the ratio is 14 to 1 for roads) are only two of many examples that drive the DFL to its confirmation tactic. The party is tired of being sucker-punched while playing by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Until Republican leaders renounce in public and aloud -- not in whispers -- these distortions, then Democrats and the wider voting public must assume that the administration and these groups are joined at the hip. Only when civic-minded Republicans disavow their own Taliban can a civil debate proceed.

Yecke's agenda

Despite Yecke's hard work and obvious qualifications, no other cabinet appointee in memory has become such a polarizing force. A parent-teacher group collected 4,500 signatures to block her confirmation. More than 20 University of Minnesota professors took issue with her approach to standards.

What has caused such an uproar? Not a single action or comment, but the cumulative effect of Yecke's expressed beliefs, policy choices and interpretations of state and federal law. Though she stresses inclusivity, scores of parents and others did not feel they were heard during the school standards or ratings processes. Her evasive manner and her directives on some issues have damaged relations between the department and the wider community. She is perceived as an ideologue with an agenda, not a fair-minded leader.

On social studies standards, for example, an early draft she approved set off a firestorm because of its biased bent. At one point, before revisions were made, she characterized critics as "hate America" types.

On the Minnesota survey of adolescent behavior on sex, drugs and other matters, she unnecessarily alarmed districts and those who rely on the research by directing districts to seek individual parental permission. Parents had always had the right to opt out.

The commissioner's new book -- "The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in Middle Schools" -- suggests a conspiracy to dumb down curricula, dilute gifted programs and promote group rights over individual achievement in order to achieve liberal "social engineering." It criticizes collective, project-based learning and middle school leaders generally for promoting "coercive egalitarianism." That's an extreme view not representative of Minnesota's middle schools.

Yecke's response to critics is that she's caught in a "perfect storm" that would put any commissioner on the hot seat. She refers to the tasks of developing new standards to replace the defunct Profile of Learning and of implementing federal requirements for the No Child Left Behind law -- all within tight time and budget constraints. She's right about having to orchestrate "a lot of change in a compressed period of time."

Yet effective management of change is a commissioner's job. A good commissioner must unite disparate elements to achieve common goals. On that score Yecke has failed. Given the amount of controversy she has generated, it is hard to see how she can effectively move the department forward.

While Yecke has focused needed attention on the racial achievement gap, her broader direction is out of step with the Minnesota mainstream. Reform is surely needed, but Minnesota voters did not endorse the radicalism Yecke represents. Nor should they tacitly accept a schools chief who lacks the temperament and management and people skills needed to improve an already good system.

Roads-only Molnau

The case against Molnau is more difficult. She is personally popular and a capable leader with a superb staff. But her arrival at MnDOT has seemed to prompt not a broadening of her views to fairly reflect all Minnesotans, but a reversion to the inbred ideology of the House Republican caucus. This narrow stance is best described by a poetic verse often recited in transportation circles: When the subject was rail, she was for buses; when the subject was buses, she was for roads; when the subject was roads, she was for tax cuts. Molnau and her colleagues have spent much energy over the last two decades finding excuses not to solve the metro's mounting traffic problem.

Even now, she dodges the only realistic remedy for a region that has fallen far behind on transportation investment: a dedicated stream of new revenues devoted to systematically expanding the roads and transit system. Instead, she offers a spasm of short-term borrowing for roads that looks impressive to the unschooled, but vanishes after 2007.

For transit, Molnau offers nothing beyond her personal opposition to Northstar, a commuter line favored by her boss, the governor. Indeed, the public has heard nothing from Molnau as the transit strike lingers and as the Legislature prepares to cut transit funding for the third straight year. At heart, Molnau is a roads-only ideologue isolated from the mainstream of Republican thinking -- in Washington, D.C., and in GOP-led states like Utah, Colorado, Georgia, Arizona and Texas, each of which has launched long-term initiatives on roads and transit, including rail. It's this isolation, and Molnau's continued pretending that Minnesota can have the transportation it needs without paying for it, that's so worrisome.

We are less compelled by the DFL's other objections to Molnau: her push toward privatized toll roads, her cuts in snowplowing and road maintenance, her emphasis on southwestern suburban freeways (near her home district) at the expense of rural roads, her attempts to weaken local control. These are legitimate matters of debate, not grounds for rejection.

Still, the narrow, ideological paths charted by each of these commissioners should bother all Minnesotans. Yecke and Molnau made themselves targets for the rigorous scrutiny to which the Senate is properly subjecting their nominations.