Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Minnesota’s Democrat-controlled Senate defeated the nomination of a leading advocate of Bush administration school reforms at the end of its annual session as legislators adopted sweeping new curriculum standards for state schools.

On Sunday, Senate Democrats united to reject Cheri Pierson Yecke 34-31 as Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s nominee for state education commissioner. The confirmation vote had been delayed 16 months because of Democratic stalling.

Mr. Pawlenty chose Virginia’s former education commissioner and board of education member to lead Minnesota’s Department of Education and rewrite the state’s curriculum standards in language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

Senate Majority Leader Dean E. Johnson, Willmar Democrat, had told Mr. Pawlenty in a letter April 13: “I have not and will not ask our members to take a ‘caucus position’ regarding their vote on any one Cabinet member.”

But as the vote was under way, Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) leaders heavily pressured two Democratic senators and one independent who had promised to vote for Mrs. Yecke. The three ended up voting against her.

Mr. Pawlenty said DFL senators had done “a great disservice to our state.”

“By rejecting Commissioner Yecke on a party-line vote, they have rejected innovation and accountability for our state. My disappointment in their action and the loss to our state is deep and profound,” he said.

Pawlenty spokesman Daniel Wolter said, “The saddest irony of this session is that when different House and Senate versions of the [social studies] standards butted heads and threatened getting the bill done this year, Commissioner Yecke brought people together and shaped a compromise that was passed just minutes before the Senate adjourned.”

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, Kenyon Republican, said Democratic senators “basically flexed their muscles and said ‘no’ in a very partisan and political way to an individual who was very much in the forefront of change in education, and willing to challenge education reform.”

Rep. Jim Davnie, Buffalo Democrat and an eighth-grade world history teacher, said the standards crafted by Mrs. Yecke “were very politically biased, represented a dramatic change in the structure of social studies curriculum in Minnesota, burdensome in their breadth, but shallow in their depth.”

He accused Mrs. Yecke “of mischaracterizing opposition as coming from people with ‘a hate-America agenda.’”

Mrs. Yecke said the accusation was a distortion. “I said, ‘The majority of parents and the public want to see history standards that reflect the greatness of the country. I don’t believe in the hate-America agenda, and it would be inappropriate to have that agenda in our standards.”

Sen. Gen Olson, Minnetrista Republican, said all the issues raised by Mr. Davnie “have been addressed in the draft that was presented to the Senate …”

“It seems that some people want to cling to the status quo and not allow any change to occur,” he said.

Mrs. Yecke may have lost the Minnesota post, but she has received an invitation from Education Secretary Rod Paige to return to the federal Education Department, where she was a deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement.

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