Perpich: An 'Out-Front' Message In New Interstate Leadership Job

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Washington--When Gov. Rudy Perpich of Minnesota talks about education reform, his message has a distinctly different tone than that of most state and national leaders.

Accountability, in his lexicon, is not something ensured by state officials; it is a natural byproduct of market forces at work in public education.

Instead of bemoaning threatened cuts in federal funding for education, he speaks of eliminating the federal role altogether--provided that the government assumes full responsibility for social services.

And while other states respond to the dire warnings of reform reports by imposing mandates on districts, Governor Perpich has set a course for Minnesota that features what he calls "opportunities" and "incentives" for school improvement.

Having recently assumed the chairmanship of the Education Commission of the States, Mr. Perpich is spending a considerable amount of his time these days traveling across the nation--and spreading his message.

In a recent interview here, the Governor addressed a wide-ranging agenda of issues likely to be prominent during his commission chairmanship.

Frank Newman, the ecs president, who accompanied the Governor, along with Ruth Randall, Minnesota's commissioner of education, predicted that "there's going to be controversy" during the Perpich chairmanship.

"The Governor's out front on a lot of these issues," he said. But he added that ecs "is not in business to make life simpler or easier.''

"The end result [of programs or initiatives] has got to be that kids are learning more," said Mr. Newman.

By far, the most controversial idea Mr. Perpich has advanced during his governorship has been public-school choice. And he promised here that, during his ecs tenure, he will be encouraging other state policymakers to experiment with the concept as a way of promoting "equal access to educational excellence."

Under legislation passed in Minnesota this year, all students will be free, by 1990, to enroll in any district in the state, with their state aid following them to the new district.

The open-enrollment law, as it is called, is considered one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching reform efforts undertaken by a state, and it has brought national attention to Minnesota.

But the Governor recalled that "when we first started proposing [open enrollment] in 1985, there was opposition to it from all quarters, with the exception of the pta and the secondary-school principals."

"He got beat up every place he went," Ms. Randall quickly added.

"They didn't throw tomatoes," she said, "but it was in words. He was not popular."

Nevertheless, the Governor was able to convince lawmakers to adopt one version of choice that year--a law that permitted Minnesota's411th and 12th graders to enroll in any of the state's postsecondary institutions and accumulate credit towards both a high-school and a college diploma.

Unlike similar dual-enrollment programs previously adopted in other states, Minnesota's pays students' tuition costs, thus eliminating a major obstacle to participation by disadvantaged students.

"I've had more satisfaction with that program than anything I have done as Governor," Mr. Perpich said, "because you can just see the happiness and good will that it has created."

Joe Nathan, a Minnesotan who has served as a consultant to the National Governors' Association and now advises state leaders who are considering choice plans, seconded the Governor's enthusiastic appraisal.

"There are a whole bunch of kids who have testified that they are the first in their family to go on to postsecondary education," he said, "and they never would have gone without [the dual-enrollment] program."

The program also "set the stage," Mr. Perpich said, for lawmakers and the public to accept the broader choice laws enacted in subsequent years.

In Mr. Nathan's view, the Governor has shown "enormous political courage and perseverance in continuing his commitment to choice."

But Governor Perpich attributes his perseverance to a rock-hard belief that open enrollment will work to improve the schools. When market forces are brought to bear on education, he maintains, districts must respond to students' needs to survive.

Already, he said in the interview, high schools in the state have doubled their foreign-language offerings and quadrupled their advanced-placement courses in an effort to retain students who otherwise might have moved on to another school or postsecondary institution.

"The market forces are at work, and they had to respond," he said. "If they didn't, students would probably be leaving, especially the better ones."

Choice, Mr. Perpich added, will also provide opportunities for less-advantaged students that have previously been available only to their more affluent peers.

"The central-city people who have the means have moved to the suburbs," he said. "Here's a ticket for the people who don't have the means to get out of the systems that are failures right now."

Though the overall impact of the open-enrollment law will not be known until after it is fully implemented in 1990, the Governor said, "I think [school officials] see the handwriting on the wall."

If they do not, he added, "there may be some districts that go into Chapter 11 [bankruptcy], for all practical purposes."

The Governor's commitment to choice is in large part a reflection of his distaste for state-imposed school-improvement measures.

He said he rejects accountability efforts that tie rewards and sanctions to student-performance indicators because "I believe market forces are going to do a much better job for us."

Simply telling educators that "this is the way it's going to be" makes it more difficult, he said, to get their cooperation on a broader range of reform initiatives.

The aversion to state mandates has earned Mr. Perpich high marks in Minnesota, not only with educators but also with business leaders.

"The Governor doesn't believe in mandates," said Robert E. Astrup, president of the Minnesota Education Association. "He believes that if you provide opportunities for people, they will do what's in their own best interest, and that's in the public interest, too."

For example, rather than mandate the consolidation of small districts with declining enrollments, the Governor has supported programs designed to encourage cooperation among these districts to maintain or increase course offerings.

"We appreciate that support," said Willard K. Baker, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. In many parts of the state, he added, "I don't think there are any school-district lines any more."

Governor Perpich's strong support from the Minnesota education establishment can also be traced to his formation of a Governor's discussion group, whose members include representatives of education groups as well as business and civic leaders.

Most of the recent education initiatives were hashed out first in this group, and the Governor has demonstrated a reluctance to act in areas where consensus cannot be reached.

"Getting people together and having an open discussion and debate forces people to say what they believe and to think through their beliefs," said Mr. Astrup.

The tactic has also provided the Governor with a "political shield,'' Mr. Astrup said, because it has allowed him to defer commenting on controversial issues until the discussion group has forwarded its recommendations.

The group has also given business leaders access to the policymaking process in education. It is a strategy Governor Perpich plans to use at ecs, with the formation of an advisory committee composed of representatives of some of the nation's largest business concerns.

Charles A. Slocum, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which includes the chief executive officers of some 82 of the state's largest corporations, praised Mr. Perpich's willingness to support the postsecondary-enrollment option after it was proposed in a report issued by his group.

"We're encouraged that a group like ours could commission a major study and actually see progress on our agenda," he said.

The Governor has not, however, "been as enthusiastic on accountability issues as he has on choice," Mr. Slocum added.

Others in Minnesota have leveled mild criticism at Mr. Perpich for his failure to move swiftly in the area of teacher empowerment and professionalization.

"I don't think the Governor has been real active in that," said the mea's Mr. Astrup. "We wish he were more active."

But most of the state's leaders praise Mr. Perpich--who has held the office longer than any other Minnesotan--as a man who is not a newly converted "education governor."

"As long as I can remember, he has talked about support for education," said Sandra Peterson, president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers. "This is not a new thing for him."

And the Governor's support has persisted despite the fact that Minnesota ranks higher than most other states on nearly all measures of educational performance and has the highest graduation rate in the nation, over 91 percent.

"This is a man who has not forgotten he couldn't speak English when he entered school," noted Mr. Nathan. The Governor was born in Carson Lake, Minn., a now-defunct mining town, of Croatian-speaking parents.

"He credits the public schools for what he has been able to do, and he believes strongly in the central role of education in providing the same opportunities for others."

But the Governor's concern and his consensus style of leadership do not prevent him from engaging in what one state leader called "shooting from the hip."

And some of that feistiness was apparent in the interview.

"I shouldn't say this, because I'm going to get in a lot of trouble," the Democratic Governor confided, "but I would have the federal government out of education."

"If they would take over the human services, and let us have the education," he explained, "I think it would work, I really and truly believe it would work."

States can no longer afford to neglect the populations that the federal education programs were created to serve, he said.

He cited as an example of positive state action "what the Southern governors are doing" in education, which he said appears in many respects "much more liberal than our rural Democrats in Minnesota."

"They have recognized that if they want to create more jobs, they're going to have to have people who are prepared for those jobs," Mr. Perpich said. "It's a different world out there."

"The public schools now are where business was 10 years ago," the Governor concluded. "Foreign countries are competing in education and doing better than we are. [The schools] are over-centralized, and they're really not using technology."

Vol. 08, Issue 07

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