Wednesday, September 07, 2005

COLUMN -- Minnesota's loss of Cheri Pierson Yecke is Florida's gain

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:39 AM |  

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Minnesota hasn't lost to Florida this badly since Super Bowl VIII.

Last week Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tapped Cheri Pierson Yecke to be his chancellor of education, equivalent to Minnesota's commissioner of education post she held for 16 months before a party-line Senate vote denied her confirmation. It's no surprise that a state serious about education reform would draft Yecke to lead its effort. Only if Florida proves a steppingstone to the U.S. Secretary of Education's post, as it justifiably might, will Minnesota yet salvage some benefit from our commissioner who got away.

The focus of the DFL-led Senate crucible that torched Yecke's nomination was highly personal and nasty. Yecke was called "divisive," "a divider, not a healer." Some criticized her for a "certainty of purpose" that excluded those who disagreed with her; others said it was unclear what she stood for. The intended impression was not so inconsistent as her critics' comments that Yecke was the devil's spawn.

Ignored by her critics, however, was just how this divisive commissioner had pulled the collective state butt out of the fire (in only 16 months) by replacing the dysfunctional Profile of Learning with a set of rigorous academic standards and by laying the foundation for the state's implementation of No Child Left Behind — controversial projects with very partisan supporters and detractors.

But this is not so much a column about Cheri Pierson Yecke. More significant than the tactic of political and personal destruction is the self-interested resistance to education reform that motivated it — rejection of the basic principle of accountability for which Yecke stood.

Yecke's all-too-brief tenure as commissioner, overshadowed as it was by the contentious confirmation hearing, ultimately leaves Minnesota entrenched in a status quo mentality with a legacy of timidity toward credible education overhaul.

In hindsight, the Yecke ouster foreshadowed the special session retreat from "meaningful school choice" — when principle and politics collide on education, the Pawlenty administration can be had.

Following the very public decapitation of his Education Department, Pawlenty essentially withdrew from the education-reform battle. For Yecke's successor, he appointed the noncontroversial chairwoman of the House Committee on Education Finance, Alice Seagren.

Feeling the love, Seagren received unanimous support from the Senate Education Committee, legislators on both sides of the aisle, the education community and praise from Education Minnesota, the union representing the state's teachers.

Her "collaborative style" was frequently contrasted with that of the more hard-edged Yecke, prompting the observation that the current commissioner appeared more concerned with not being Cheri Pierson Yecke than with furthering a reform-oriented agenda.

Putting collaborative style over substantive action denies the reality that reform is by nature divisive, but not necessarily exclusionary.

Yes, a Yecke-led, reform-oriented Education Department's first allegiance would have been to the data-based, rigorous standards-based system with definite accountability, but it would have also been a strong supporter of school choice.

"(Education reform) comes back to the whole idea of an educated public," Yecke said in an interview in May. "The private route, the home school route, the government school route, whatever choice is right for you, as long as we meet that goal (an educated public) — that's what is important."

Contrast that position with the on-again/off-again support the Pawlenty administration proffered during the special session on behalf of "meaningful school choice," complemented as it was by virtual silence from the Education Department.

One must ask, would a Commissioner Yecke have so waffled on the Hann/Buesgens legislation that offered public vouchers and genuine school choice to low-income families?

With her emphasis on accountability, would a Commissioner Yecke have negotiated an 11th-hour, fallaciously labeled "reform" like the "Alternative Teacher Professional Pay System" that purports to be teacher pay-for-performance but provides neither criteria for success nor a definition of program failure?

Would a Commissioner Yecke have so collaboratively relinquished education policy leadership to Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the Education Policy Committee and defender of the educational establishment and status quo?

When the DFL had no answer to the disaster that was the Profile of Learning, it sniped while Yecke did the heavy lifting on state standards.

Behind in readiness for No Child Left Behind, the DFL left catch-up preparation to Yecke. Once the work was done, the DFL dumped her to pursue policies more favorable to the education establishment and the status quo.

Yecke deserves a better legacy; unfortunately, Minnesota is not where she will build it.

Category: Column,