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Published in Print: March 20, 2002, as Ventura Rumbles With Educators

Ventura Rumbles With Educators

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Call it the disenchantment of Jesse Ventura.

The former pro-wrestling superstar who won the governorship of Minnesota in 1998 with an education-friendly platform and a veteran teacher as his running mate is now convinced there's something deeply wrong with the public school system. And, as one might expect of a cigar-smoking mountain of a man once known as "The Body," he's not shy about saying so.

"I like to equate it to when you open your refrigerator and you smell something rotten," Mr. Ventura said in a March 6 interview. "Now obviously, not everything in the refrigerator is rotten. There's overwhelmingly good things in that refrigerator. But you have to tear apart the whole refrigerator to find the source of the smell. That's how I'm viewing education right now."

That dim outlook is having serious repercussions. School districts across the state are laying off teachers and killing programs to close multimillion-dollar budget deficits. At the same time, the once wildly popular Mr. Ventura has seen his job-approval rating fall below 50 percent.

Still, the governor hardly seems concerned about burning political capital.

In recent months, he's cited statistics on the statewide growth of school administration—numbers that later turned out to be incorrect—to blame principals and superintendents for spiraling school costs. He's used his weekly radio program to help defeat a property-tax increase sought by the suburban school district his daughter attends. He's repeatedly called the leaders of the Minnesota teachers' union arrogant. And he's angered public school advocates by calling for increased competition for a "monopoly that is devouring itself."

The increasingly harsh rhetoric and a meager hike for schools in the state's two-year budget have many state education leaders questioning the desirability of another Ventura administration.

"He makes a mountain out of a molehill, he doesn't know how to pick his battles, and he has a loose mouth," said Sen. Sandra L. Pappas, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate education panel. "I think most of us would prefer he not run again so we can move on to a governor who is serious about [policymaking]."

Mr. Ventura, an Independent who scored an upset as the Reform Party's standard-bearer four years ago, won't say if he plans to run for re-election in November. But he does promise to use at least some of the time he has left in his current term to push for changes in public schooling.

He may try to designate teachers as "essential employees" so they can't strike—a proposal the governor said he delights in using to antagonize the union—or lobby to expand the state's alternatives to the public school system, such as charter schools and tax breaks for private school tuition.

In the meantime, few observers hold out much hope that relations between Minnesota's combative governor and its school community will improve.

"If the governor recognized that his negative rhetoric wasn't helping, and if those of us in public education would hold out an olive branch, I think we could turn this around," said Charlie Kyte, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "Do I think there's a great chance of that happening? No, I don't."

Hard Times

Some political insiders speculate that Gov. Ventura's disillusionment with public education goes hand in hand with his state's new financial woes.

Minnesota's economy, like those of other states, took a nosedive last year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the country's slide into recession. Only last month, the Ventura administration projected a budget deficit that could reach almost $2.3 billion in 2003, and $3.2 billion by 2005.

In his Jan. 3 State of the State Address, the governor warned lawmakers to deal with the state's deficit, or he would do the cutting himself.

He also made a point of noting that five spending areas—health care, social services, aid to local governments, higher education, and K-12 education— account for 85 percent of the state government's $28 billion in annual spending. The two education budgets consume nearly half the state's general fund.

So, when it comes to making sacrifices, Gov. Ventura warned, there would be no "sacred cows." True to his word, he proposed a supplemental budget in early January that called for cutting $100.5 million, or roughly 1 percent, from K-12 education in this biennium, which covers the 2002 and 2003 fiscal years.

Most of those cuts were never made. In a protracted budget battle last month, lawmakers in both chambers banded together to override a gubernatorial veto, and the legislature passed its own bill to close the deficit. That plan included few decreases for education.

"Jesse put out this budget proposal that would have cut education quite a bit ... but I think we're finally getting through to legislators that schools have been hurt badly," said Judy L. Farmer, a longtime member of the Minneapolis school board and the president of the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Taking On Status Quo

Even before Minnesota's economy took a turn for the worse, the governor's views on public education were shifting. A look at the budgets passed during his term show his movement from champion of public education to demanding skeptic.

In the first biennial budget passed under Mr. Ventura, schools saw an increase in state spending of nearly 20 percent, from $6.43 billion in 1999 to $8.04 billion in 2001. It was the largest boost for precollegiate education in nearly a decade—a fact that still earns the governor praise from many education leaders.

By the following budget cycle, Mr. Ventura was feeling less generous. Schools received an increase of less than 8 percent over two years in his 2002-03 budget plan. He vowed they would get nothing more until he found out exactly how the money was being spent.

"I want them to convince me that more money is going to mean a better education for our kids, and I don't think they can do that," he said in a telephone interview this month.

The governor's about-face made many educators claim that Mr. Ventura has never been in their corner.

"Everybody wants to be the 'education governor,' but they are frequently not willing to align resources with that claim," said Dick Anderson, the recently departed executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Asked about Mr. Ventura's change of heart, many observers point to a combative meeting over spending last year between the governor and the leaders of Minnesota's teachers' union.

Gov. Ventura and President Judy Shaubach of Education Minnesota, the state's combined affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, offer differing versions of what happened in that session. But both agree it didn't go well.

"They're two of the most arrogant people who've ever stepped into my office," Mr. Ventura said, referring to Ms. Shaubach and the union's co- president at the time, Sandra Peterson. "They looked at me like, 'There's nothing you can do to us. It's what we'll do to you.' "

"The turning point [in the relationship] was simply the money," he added. "I was their hero as long as I provided them huge amounts of money. They misrepresent themselves because they say I cut them. I didn't cut them—they got more money again. But their idea of a cut is not getting everything on their wish list."

Ms. Shaubach argues that current state aid fails to match inflation and has forced schools to lay off teachers, cut programs, and increase class sizes. As for the governor's relationship with the education establishment, she suggests that was doomed from the start.

"I think all the elements were there in the beginning for a fallout like this," Ms. Shaubach said. "It wasn't like we ever really had a positive working relationship with [the governor], or that he understood the implications of what he said. He came in with very little knowledge about public education ... and it's difficult to find someone in his administration who is knowledgeable."

Gov. Ventura bristles at the suggestion that his executive branch lacks K-12 expertise.

"I don't think it's fair to say my administration doesn't get it," he said. "I think it's fair to say nobody in the public school system gets it."

Ventura's Experts

When he wants in-house advice on education, the governor turns to his lieutenant governor, Mae Schunk, or education Commissioner Christine Jax.

Ms. Schunk, a 36-year educator, has spent much of her time in office visiting schools. As of early March, she'd been to 305 of the state's 345 districts. ("The Minn. Teacher Behind 'The Body'," Feb. 3, 1999.)"I really only knew about my own school, my own district," the former elementary school teacher said. "I saw everything from the perspective of what I needed for my own kids. Now I feel it's very important to know about what's going on and get the heartbeat of education in Minnesota. I bring the message back to the Capitol."

Education policymaking is not something Mr. Ventura's second-in-command considers her job.

Despite the lieutenant governor's background and her presence in schools, education leaders have few good things to say about her political contributions.

"She runs around the state telling people they're important, and she's seen as a nice lady, but she's not influential when it comes to advising the governor on education policy," Sen. Pappas said.

Education leaders also say they don't feel they can turn to Ms. Jax, the head of the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning, which oversees K-12 education.

Commissioner Jax recently put educators and interest groups on notice that they should not count on her to sway the governor. The gubernatorial appointee calls complaints about the administration's knowledge void in school matters an attempt to muddy political waters in an election year.

"It's exactly because I know the issues that they're upset," Ms. Jax said. "If I didn't, they'd be able to manipulate me."

The commissioner, who was a professor of education policy at the Twin Cities campus of St. Mary's University before taking the schools chief's job, lists several initiatives enacted or proposed by the Ventura administration—including a planned financial audit of the state's education system—that she believes are behind the animosity between the governor and the education community.

"I think one reason you hear all these personal attacks is because they don't want to go public saying they don't want these things," Ms. Jax said.

Still, educators say they feel abandoned in their hour of need.

"I think most of us are feeling there is no significant support for education in the state government at the same time we're going through very painful budget cuts," said L. Chris Richardson, the superintendent of the 22,000-student Osseo school district that incurred the governor's wrath last year during its losing campaign to raise local property taxes.

The Blame Game

There are those, however, who say that Minnesota's education establishment shares a large part of the blame for its fall from the governor's good graces.

"This governor is no different from [previous] governors," said Rep. Harry Mares, the Republican chairman of the House education committee. "They all came in supportive of education in a number of ways and ended up in a short period of time becoming foes."

"The education establishment has been very, very difficult to deal with," the state lawmaker added. "I think the question [Mr. Ventura] is really asking is whether the union is focused on improving the education of children or just on the well- being of its membership."

Critics of the teachers' union say that union leaders have been inept in their dealings with a succession of governors in recent years.

They contend that union leadership has managed time and again to erode executive-branch support for public schools, partly through its heavy-handed tactics.

"It's been amazing to watch three different governors from three different parties go through this same pattern," said Morgan S. Brown, the executive director of the Minnesota Education League, a Plymouth- based group that advocates school choice and educational improvement. "I think Governor Ventura was surprised at how quickly these education groups soured on him."

But education leaders blame the friction with this governor on his battering-ram rhetoric and his refusal to draw strict lines between Ventura the governor and Ventura the entertainer.

"I think it's disrespectful and demoralizing to people who work in education," Ms. Shaubach said when asked about Mr. Ventura's recent tendency to refer to the public school system as "the black hole" and the "bad smell."

For his part, Mr. Ventura brushes aside such complaints with a terse reply.

"I've got a response back for you," the unrepentant governor said. "Harry Truman once said, 'I didn't give anyone hell. I just told them the truth and they thought it was hell.' "

"Don't judge me by my rhetoric," he said. "Judge me by the things I do."

Vol. 21, Issue 27, Pages 1,17

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