Q&A: Former Teacher-Union Official Talks of New Life as State Chief
In January, Gov. Arne Carlson of Minnesota appointed Gene Mammenga as the state's commissioner of education. While such appointments seldom make headlines outside the state, Mr. Mammenga's selection drew interest around the country because of his somewhat unconventional route to the job.
A former high-school and college history teacher, Mr. Mammenga was a state senator and for 11 years a lobbyist for the Minnesota Education Association, as well as for the St. Paul schools and the state university system.
Staff writer Karen Diegmueller spoke with him about the transition from teachers'-union advocate to state schools chief.
Q. Why were you, a union official, selected education commissioner?
A.. The Minnesota Education Association this last year held a convention for the first time in its history [to] select who they would back for U.S. Senate and governor. At that convention, they gave the nomination to Arne Carlson ]the Republican challenger to the incumbent, Gov. Rudy Perpich], and that caused quite a bit of publicity because it was unusual not to support the incumbent governor, particularly because the organization had supported a lot of Democrats and relatively few Republicans. So the A story is that certainly brought me to the attention of the Governor.
The Governor and I did know each other for a number of years because I worked in and around the capital and he served as state auditor .... We did run into one another occasionally and did talk.
When it came time to name a commissioner, and he thought about someone he knew who was in public education, he probably knew me as well as anybody from that background. But papers out here were very clear there was a linkage between the support of the education association and my being named.
Q. What led you to take the job?
A.. I am 60 years old, and while I have no immediate plans for retirement, obviously, my career is not in the beginning or the middle. The chance for someone who has been in public education all ]his] life to serve as chief state school officer is something that I... could not turn down.
Q. Has your work for a teachers' union affected your policymaking role?
A. That is something I think a lot about. I'm not confused about the different sets of responsibilities that I have in this job compared with the one I had previously.
In Minnesota, the education world... is relatively small, so while I represented the education association, I had many, many occasions to speak with and to ... all of the other people involved in education. I was a member of that community for 20 years, so I'm aware of all the different influences brought to bear on the legislature, and I just don't see myself as... an advocate for one or the other groups.
On the other hand, I think it is fortuitous in a way that we're going through a lot of discussion right now on site-based decisionmaking and outcome-based education, both of which movements can't come to any fruition without the confidence and support of classroom teachers. Those are people with whom I've had a relationship for about a dozen years, and I am comfortable in understanding how they feel, and I believe that they believe in me and have confidence in me. I have a ready dialogue with that whole group, and I think that is valuable.
Q. In your new role, have your views of the union changed?
A. There are certain respects where the teachers' organization acts clearly as an advocacy group, and my views are in a different scope from theirs. Not [that we are] necessarily at odds, but I'm just not interested in as much of the same thing that they consider paramount. For example, I spent a lot of time lobbying on the retirement issue, and that's not an issue now that demands much attention from me.
There is a real transformation at work in teacher organizations now. They went through a period where there was a fairly aggressive union format, and about a half dozen years ago we had 40 or 50 strikes. Now there is one strike being talked about in our state, but there is a lot more discussion about instruction and professional development in the [unions] than there was when I was with that organization. Teachers are looking to the organizations to enhance their professional competence, to give them information and run workshops for them in how to do their job better. That doesn't mean they don't want the teacher unions to bargain their contract for them, but there is a shift in emphasis. I find myself now in this job much more interested in the instructional and professional-development end of it than in the bargaining piece.
Q. Has your nontraditional background been a disadvantage?
A. The people in education in Minnesota have shown me a deference and a respect that I treasure .... I like to think that is because I've had relationships with these people, and, while they might not have agreed with me or the position I was forwarding, they respected my honesty and integrity.
Another part of it... . is that we in Minnesota have such good wishes for public education, and now I'm the titular head of the system. Because of that, people treat me very well. I have not found a vestige of resentment or a question of my motives on issues. .