Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Common Sense from the Strib

Editorial: Hard lesson/K-12 chief must build bridges
May 19, 2004

Personally stung by the rejection of his education chief, Gov. Tim Pawlenty lashed out Monday at the Senate DFL caucus for being "mean-sprited" and blatantly political, to the detriment of the state. The governor said senators sought to prove their "relevance" by refusing confirmation for Cheri Pierson Yecke, whom he called a "talented, energetic" leader.

That's a response with a partisan bias of its own. Blaming the action completely on Senate DFLers' desire for political muscle-flexing ignores concerns raised by hundreds of Minnesotans during the past few months. Senate opponents of Yecke did not make up the controversy that swirled around the commissioner during her bumpy 15 months on the job. Rather, senators listened and responded to what grew into a groundswell of constituent complaints.

Yecke's critics included classroom teachers and other education establishment types, but also many parents. One parent group collected 4,500 signatures in favor of blocking her confirmation. Many of those critics had participated in the effort Yecke led to establish new education standards -- and come away from the process disenchanted with the commissioner.

Although Yecke worked hard and had a strong résumé, no cabinet appointee of recent memory became such a polarizing, divisive force. That was not the Senate's doing. The cumulative effect of Yecke's expressed beliefs on issues ranging from a state student survey to middle school practices to collective learning got her into trouble.

Through their complaints and concerns, Minnesotans demonstrated that Yecke was not a good fit for education in this state. Over time, it became clear that some of her views were extreme and unrepresentative of Minnesota values. Simply put, in some areas she wanted to lead this state in an educational direction that many thought wrongheaded.

Instead of continuing to blast DFLers, Pawlenty should pay attention to why they turned down only one of his several dozen commissioner choices. As the governor mulls over selection of a new commissioner, he should use the lessons from this contentious process to make a better choice.

Minnesota needs an education leader that is, as Sen. Steve Kelley rightly said, "a uniter, not an active divider." The next state school chief should acknowledge the great successes of local schools, even while calling for reforms to address challenges.

It is expected that the governor will select a commissioner who shares his views on education and who will likely be more conservative than liberal. That is not a problem, to a point. But both Pawlenty and Yecke overreached in their determination to make changes that many Minnesotans regarded as radical and beyond Pawlenty's political mandate. Just as important, whatever the political bent of the commissioner, he or she must have the temperament, good judgment and people skills to work well with disparate groups.

Beating up on the Senate majority, and by extension the many Minnesotans who agreed with their decision, does not advance the state's education agenda. Like it or not, Pawlenty must understand that he has to work with this Senate to get a strong education leader in place and to generally guide the Legislature toward agreements for the common good.