During her first year on the job, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Cheri Pierson Yecke says, she never thought twice about the fact that she had yet to be confirmed by the state Senate.
She was too busy working to ensure that the North Star State met the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, overseeing a complete rewrite of Minnesota’s academic standards, and dealing with the repercussions of the largest budget deficit in the state’s history.
That was then. Now it’s anyone’s guess if the commissioner will still have her job by the end of this month.
Appointed by a new Republican governor last January during a time of tremendous change for Minnesota and its schools, Ms. Yecke has become a political lightning rod.
Those who support her say she is probably the most capable and qualified person to ever fill the state’s top education post. To her critics, however, she’s a lackey for the political right who is bent on carrying out the education agenda of the Bush administration—in which she previously served—regardless of the impact on Minnesota schools and students.
“Cheri Pierson Yecke has politicized her position, polarized the state on education issues, and done a disservice to our governor and our state,” reads an anti-Yecke posting by the Alliance to Block the Confirmation of the Commissioner on its Web site.
Such Web rhetoric is being met head-on by sites that extol her virtues. Both sides are urging the public to help sway the Senate’s decision, which is scheduled to begin with an April 13 confirmation vote by the chamber’s education committee.
The committee held its first hearing on Ms. Yecke’s future on April 1. Its members declined last week to speculate on the outcome of the confirmation process. Democrats control the committee by two votes, and the Senate by just one.
“Democrats hold only a slim majority here now, and they’re trying to leverage that control—they see [threatening Ms. Yecke’s confirmation] as a way of doing that,” said Sen. Gen Olson, the ranking Republican on the education committee. “I’d have to say I’m not certain what will happen.”
At the same time the legislature is considering Commissioner Yecke’s future in state government, it is also debating her controversial proposal for new social studies standards—an issue that most observers agree is at the heart of the battle over her confirmation.
In March, the Republican-controlled House approved the commissioner’s proposed social studies standards, which were first made public in September. The same week, the Senate education committee approved a competing package of learning requirements backed by its Democratic chairman, Sen. Steve Kelley.
“The fight over Yecke is mainly a proxy battle for the whole culture war,” said David M. Strom, the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, a conservative advocacy group based in Plymouth, Minn., that supports the schools chief’s confirmation.
“I think Yecke is probably a traditionalist when it comes to education, and she’s slightly less on the diversity bandwagon than her critics,” he said. “But there’s also nothing particularly radical about her. She’s just being plugged into this pre-existing battle.”
The commissioner’s social studies plan was revised several times by a 40- member “citizens’ committee” in response to concerns voiced by historians and teachers during public-comment periods.
The revisions weren’t enough to satisfy her critics. She is under fire for allegedly cutting teachers out of the process, pushing an uncritical view of American history in the standards, and aligning herself too closely with conservative interest groups such as EdWatch.
Formerly called the Maple River Coalition, the Chaska, Minn.-based EdWatch fought to have the state’s old performance-based education standards, the Profile of Learning, replaced with educational requirements focused on classical subject areas.
Though the group has problems with Ms. Yecke’s proposed standards, it supports them because of their focus on “the founding principles of freedom that define our country and are the foundation of liberty,” said Julie M. Quist, the director of EdWatch.
In Ms. Yecke’s view, the process for devising the standards was open and fair, but there was no way to avoid a dust-up. “When you’re looking at what students should be taught in social studies and history, it doesn’t matter what state you’re in— it’s always contentious,” the commissioner said.
Ms. Yecke’s other problem is that she has become synonymous in Minnesota with the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government’s main K-12 education law. State officials, teachers, and other education stakeholders across the country have increasingly criticized the law in recent months as being too complex, expensive, and intrusive.
Commissioner Yecke, 49, worked for the Republican administration that championed the law, a centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic agenda that passed Congress with large, bipartisan majorities.
Immediately before being tapped for state education chief by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Ms. Yecke was the U.S. Department of Education’s director of teacher quality and public school choice. Her job in Washington was to focus on the impact of the No Child Left Behind law.
“It is, in many ways, the tale of a Bush Department of Education person going to Minnesota to implement the Bush education agenda,” said Rick Theisen, a social studies consultant in Maple Grove, Minn., and a former president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “If successful here in Minnesota, the home of [the late U.S. Sen.] Paul Wellstone, it should be easy in other states across the country.”
Ms. Yecke, a native Minnesotan and former teacher, regards her Washington experience as a benefit—one that she doesn’t hesitate to tout or use.
“My boss is the governor, and I work for the people of Minnesota,” Ms. Yecke said in an interview last week. “That said, it’s been very advantageous for our state to have this connection to Washington. I’m not shy about using my connection to say we need a tweak in this part of the law or a revision in that requirement. And Washington has been very receptive.”
Ms. Yecke is also not afraid to demonstrate her independence, even from those who share her views on education and politics.
Last week, she was one of four education officials to resign from the board of the conservative-leaning Education Leaders Council amid charges of mismanagement leveled at the leadership of the Washington-based group, which has been a strong advocate for school choice and educational accountability. (“Members Quit Board of Troubled Council,” this issue.)
As for her future in Minnesota, Ms. Yecke said: “I’m as ready as I’m going to be and feeling confident.”