- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Star Tribune of Minneapolis, Feb. 24

GOP exacts revenge for marriage vote

GOP state Rep. David FitzSimmons became more than a conservative newbie last May when he secured passage of an amendment giving churches that refuse to perform same-sex marriages sturdier legal protection, and then voted for the marriage-legalization bill. He became a good legislator.

FitzSimmons, a 35-year-old agricultural project manager, also became a political whipping boy for the social conservatives who control the dominant Republican Party in his Wright County district. Since May, he’s been the target of vitriol, untruths and threats severe enough to be turned over to law enforcement.

At last Saturday’s District 30B GOP convention, he became a lame duck. FitzSimmons announced before the balloting that he would not seek a second term in the face of Dayton City Council member Eric Lucero’s endorsement challenge, which focused almost exclusively on the marriage vote. Lucero then won the party’s nod for the seat.

As a result, a promising legislative career has been cut short - but that’s not what’s most lamentable about FitzSimmons‘ impending departure from elective office. What’s worse is that his fate will become a cautionary tale, both discouraging similarly able people from running for the Legislature and deterring sitting legislators from seeking middle ground in the midst of controversy.

The FitzSimmons story also will reinforce claims that the state Republican Party is an association of social-issue purists, intolerant of deviation. That reputation is easily overstated by GOP critics. It’s noteworthy that on the same Saturday, another GOP legislator who voted for the marriage bill as amended by FitzSimmons - Patrick Garofalo of Farmington - won easy endorsement for a sixth term.

But the developments in District 30B likely will be remembered longer, and won’t help state GOP leaders’ efforts to widen their party’s reach. Neither will it help state government become more functional. The perceived price of compromise just went up.

FitzSimmons possesses strong Republican credentials. He was the manager of GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer’s 2010 campaign and a top adviser to 2012 Republican Senate candidate Kurt Bills. As a legislator, he chalked up a 100 percent rating on the annual scorecard of the GOP-allied Taxpayers League of Minnesota. Last fall - as he was being vilified for accepting “gay money” for his campaign - he turned all of his 2013 donations over to joint Republican efforts to return control of the state House to the GOP.

He has no regrets, he said Monday. “I knew this possibly was going to be a vote that would put me out of office,” he said of the vote for the same-sex marriage bill, as amended. “But I would do it again. I made the best long-term decision I could for my constituents. If you don’t try to do what’s best for your constituents, it’s not worth being in office, anyway.”

Courage and a focus on one’s constituents are hallmarks of a good legislator. It will be a shame if FitzSimmons‘ fate at his own party’s hands results in Minnesota having fewer of them.


The Free Press of Mankato, Feb. 25

Grad rate offers mixed grade

The enthusiasm that Mankato area graduation rates appear to be well above state average and state averages are better than last year must be tempered by the frustration of Minnesotans on the existence of a measurement system that seems to change and confuse.

While Minnesota’s overall graduation rate for 2013 was the highest in a decade at 80 percent, up from 2012’s rate of 77.6 percent, the report was like a batting average with an asterisk by it. That’s because even last year, graduation rates were measured differently. While that mattered to some who may have been reluctant to address a comparison to last year, it didn’t stop Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius, a political appointee, from stating rates are the best in a decade and credit should go to Dayton and the Legislature for increasing funding.

Maybe. You can’t tell from the system of measurement we have right now.

Some Republican critics suggest rates may have gone up this year because the Legislature removed the graduation test last year as a requirement for graduating. There’s got to be a least a little truth to that from a logical point of view. Some grad rates jumped dramatically leading one to the conclusion that something more dramatic was at work - like removing one of the more difficult requirements for graduating.

Caselliuss countered that it was related to a new accountability and performance system for schools. That system uses graduation rates as a measure for schools, but it also focuses on reducing the achievement gap. And it’s also clear that schools and teachers have redoubled their efforts to track and help struggling students and to improve teaching methods.

In some respects, the new system of measurement and accountability has been working. In the new measurements, many showed improvement not only in the Mankato area but around the state. The Multiple Measurement Rating measures the achievement gap progress as well as graduation rates. A report about a week ago showed the achievement gap was narrowing in Mankato area schools as well as several schools around the state

We’ve argued the new measurement system is superior to the punishment approach of No Child Left Behind, and new teacher evaluation and accountability standards being phased in are also positive steps.

But at some point taxpayers need to know that students must pass some kind of measurable requirement to graduate and we should compare that against our policy and financial initiatives. Parents have a reasonable expectation their children will be educated in a manner to secure gainful employment after graduation. Employers and students themselves deserve no less.

The good news that a higher percentage of students are graduating in four years must be tempered with the idea that the formulas seem to be changing, leaving education leaders and taxpayers at least a little confused on how to measure progress.

Taxpayers, and policymakers for that matter, are best served when they have comparable data to measure progress. That we change the measures every so often, or apply them inconsistently, means there is no real data to back up plans for efficiency gains, funding cuts or funding increases if necessary.

As political winds change - as they have been shown to do in the last five years - we hope we don’t go back and forth on how to measure graduation. A grad test that comes back into vogue will only skew our year-to-year graduation rates further and hamper our ability to judge whether education is working for Minnesota’s students.

A continual tweaking of what to measure and when, with what group, based on the dogma of the month will provide the same skewed results.

This doesn’t have to be rocket science. Figure out what kids should know to graduate, test them and grade them.


Post-Bulletin of Rochester, Feb. 25

Adults could learn plenty from student mediators

Conflict is inevitable in high schools - or just about any place where hundreds of teenagers gather, each bringing their own personality, background and beliefs. The need to manage that conflict also is inevitable because some students lack the maturity they need to resolve their differences in a civil manner.

Mayo High School takes this need seriously and has trained mediators who can intervene before disputes get out of hand. The remarkable thing is that the sessions are led by fellow students who conduct 300 to 400 conflict mediation sessions a year.

It’s an amazing success story, and it didn’t happen by accident.

The Mayo Mediators program began 16 years ago through the efforts of paraprofessional Jeri Brown. The program is largely run by students, but Brown oversees the sessions and offers suggestions for the most difficult cases.

A typical session has three student mediators. One is a note taker and one represents each side in the conflict. Initially, the aggrieved parties are required to talk solely to the mediators in the conflict-resolution room. Only after the tension decreases are the adversaries permitted to speak to each another.

Often, it’s simply a matter of defining the problem.

“I think part of what we do is help two or one person decide what the conflict is,” said student mediator Madison Clarke. “You would be surprised how far that takes a person in the right direction to solving the problem.” That’s an astute observation by a student demonstrating uncommon maturity for her age.

With an objective mediator asking questions, making observations and suggestions, and someone else recording the conversation, a student is more likely to answer honestly without exaggeration. After being heard and understood by a mediator, an upset student is more apt to listen to an opposing viewpoint.

For both the students in conflict and the mediators themselves, this is invaluable preparation for adulthood.

The approach is reminiscent of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” where one of the habits is “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Once your adversary feels heard, then you can move toward reconciliation.

The program’s popularity is amazing. With nine students accepted from 100 applications every year, Mayo Mediators draws from a diverse population. Only after extensive training does a student earn the privilege of being a member of the 28-person mediation team.

It’s a safe bet that such experience looks very good on a college application, and it also might give job applicants an edge in a world where communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills are in high demand.

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