Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Unraveling the metaphor -- An Interview with Cheri Pierson-Yecke

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:07 AM |  

Note: I had planned to do a Pioneer Press interview column on former Minnesota Commissioner of Education Cheri Pierson-Yecke, "celebrating" the anniversary of the non-confirmation vote of the Minnesota Senate, May 16, 2004. Because she is an announced candidate for the 6th Congressional District Seat, the Pioneer Press felt it could not run the column as it might be construed as an early endorsement.

Nonetheless, Yecke's ouster was a significant event in recent Minnesota politics for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the clear transfer of the real power behind education policy from the education commissioner's office to the Senate Education Committee chaired by Sen. Steve Kelley. The interview found here sheds some perspective on the "Borking" of Cheri Yecke.

One additional note: The previous paragraph is my observation. As she should, Yecke did not comment in the interview on the current education department or specifics of Minnesota education policy. She rightly felt it unfair, given her position, to comment.

Turn onto the punaciously named Arnold Palmer Drive, and you find yourself in a suburban upper-middle class golf-course community that is either a 21st century vision of the American Dream or a gilded environment inhabited by soulless couples with 2.5 children and 1.3 pets.

Drive toward the inevitable cul-de-sac past small yards and big houses. Every yard exquisitely manicured, each house a unique application of the same basic design -- it’s a perfect example of the democratization of the good life or another statement of material trimuph over the human spirit.

The house has a small yard sign supporting the troops in Iraq and a flag pole tucked next to the attached garage from which fly both an American and Marine Corps flag. Symbolic American pride and patriotism or jingoistic imperialism?

That is Cheri Pierson-Yecke’s neighborhood and not a bad metaphor for the former Minnesota Commissioner of Education current Senior Fellow at the Center for the American Experiment and candidate for Republican congressional endorsement in the 6th District. People see in her what they want to see -- she is either the devil incarnate complete with horns and a tail, or a haloed champion of the conservative cause.

Stereotypes, however, are but a little bit truth and a lot a bit wishful projection, and that's the case with Cheri Yecke. She's less devil and less saint than any might like her to be, but then she's also a lot more. As one converted critic described her, she is “articulate, smart and compassionate.” And she's a hit at McDonald's.

It was just a year ago, May 16th, after a contentious committee hearing, that the Minnesota Senate voted, after she had already served 16 months, not to confirm Gov. Pawlenty’s appointment of Yecke as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education.

She was called “divisive,” “a divider, not a healer.” Some criticized her for a certainty of purpose that excluded those that disagreed with her; some said it was unclear what she stood for, while others said she lacked leadership. “Blast” was a popular headline word associated with Yecke -- she was either “blasting” the political climate or the state auditor’s office or being “blasted” by teachers, parents and legislators. City Pages accused her of bring “hypocritically flexible” on the issue of federal education policy.

And yet when one looks at the record, one has to wonder how someone so at odds with the world could possibly have built the consensus necessary to -- in a very brief 16 months -- finally put down the Profile of Learning, put into place a set of rigorous academic standards and lay the foundation for the state’s implementation of the No Child Left Behind act -- all very controversial projects with very partisan supporters and detractors.

This past week I sat down at the Yecke dining room table -- overlooking the third fairway and a soothing little body of water that was either a “cute little pond” or a “drainage ditch” -- to unravel the Yecke metaphor.

Our conversation focused on the past -- her “dumping” by the Senate -- and the education philosophy that she brought to Minnesota and that she hopes she can take to Congress. We did not talk about a future congressional race per se. I got the sense that this interview was a welcomed venting experience for Yecke (no one else in the media is acknowledging the anniversary of her ousting). Her religious faith and her native intelligence both dictate that she holds no grudge against those that dismantled her personally and professionally. Yet there remains the sense that while all may be forgiven, it is not as easily forgotten.

There is an edge to Cheri Pierson-Yecke, which is what her opponents react to. It is also what makes her an effective leader.

Yecke is clearly a partisan when it comes to education, but she is not the exclusionary partisan she is painted. Yes, she would first make education safe for the data-based, rigorous standards-based system she believes in, but she is also a strong supporter of school choice -- including choice for those who think differently. It’s the “endgame” that is important to Yecke -- however one chooses to get there, at the end of the day, children should be measured against rigorous academic standards and their schools held accountable for student results.

I have areas were I disagree with Yecke -- when I think about the structure of the No Child Left Behind act in the clutches of a President Clinton the Fairer, I get very nervous. Nonetheless, Yecke makes a strong case for the merits of the program when administration is in capable hands. Not completely convinced, I came away with a new perspective.

And that’s the personal power of Yecke. She’s Regeanesque in the sense that years of reflection and struggle with her values has provided her with sincere conviction (contrary to City Pages, she did not go gently into the Washington bureaucracy) that even a mauling by political thugs could not scar.

Full text of my interview with Cheri Pierson Yecke is found here.