If recent television ads are any indication, education will be one of the top issues in this year's U.S. Senate race. An ad for Republican Norm Coleman touts Coleman's educational achievements during his two terms as mayor of St. Paul. Democrats say Coleman is taking credit for things he didn't do. A recent ad for Coleman's opponent, DFL incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone, highlighted Wellstone's push for more education funding.
The Coleman ad running statewide, which is paid for by the state Republican Party, shows colorful shots of the former St. Paul mayor talking to students and parents (View video).
The ad refers to the St. Paul Reads Campaign, launched in 1999 by Coleman and superintendent Pat Harvey. In the first year, students read an average of 37 books each. The ad also claims Coleman reformed public schools, a statement that got the attention of school board chair Al Oertwig.
"When he claims credit for something that I have been responsible for and he has not, then that says something about playing politics with something that I find offensive," Oertwig said.
Oertwig, a Wellstone supporter, says the mayor of St. Paul has no authority over the public schools, unlike some cities, Chicago, for example, where the mayor hires the superintendent and appoints the school board.
Coleman also supported former Gov. Arne Carlson's push to allow some families to use public money to send their children to private schools.
State Republican Party officials say while Coleman may not have had a direct role in education, he used his bully pulpit to push for educational reform. Charter school advocates say the claim that Coleman championed charter schools is accurate.
"In my opinion, and being very involved in the charter school movement and charter schools, that I would certainly categorize him as a friend," said Liz Wynne, principal of Twin Cities Academy, a charter school that opened in 1999.
Coleman's daughter started attending Twin Cities Academy last fall, but Wynne says Coleman was a charter school advocate long before that. She says Coleman formed a blue-ribbon task force to look at ways to strengthen charter schools, after some schools experienced well-publicized financial problems that Wynne says gave the entire charter school movement a black eye.
"There were some schools that ran into some difficulties, so I would certainly say that Mayor Coleman's attitude was not just to linger and be very passive, but being very proactive, and 'let's look at the resources that we have in the community and let's collaborate and let's give these schools the kind of support that they need,'" Wynne said.
But Coleman critics say the mayor's blue-ribbon task force didn't do anything. Rep. Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, pushed legislation last year that tightened accounting standards for charter schools.
"What we saw during Mayor Coleman's watch was more charter schools in St. Paul involved in spectacular scandals and collapses, leaving hundreds of our kids without their school to go to," according to Entenza.
Entenza says Coleman never talked to him about his efforts to increase financial accountability for charter schools.
The debate over Coleman's role in education indicates how high the stakes are in the U.S. Senate race, with recent polls showing Coleman and Wellstone running neck and neck.
Wellstone too has been touting his work on behalf of education. An ad that ran last month, paid for by the state DFL Party talked about Wellstone's push for full federal funding of special education.
The problem with the ad, according to state Republican Party spokesman Bill Walsh, is that Wellstone hasn't been able to enact his plan.
"We get nothing out of Wellstone except fight, fight, fight. We get accomplishments out of Coleman," Walsh said.
Wellstone's special-ed funding amendment was included in the Senate version of the education bill, but was stripped out by House Republicans in conference committee.
Expect to see more of these so-called "soft money" ads paid for by political parties and interest groups as the campaign heats up. And since both of the candidates have raised millions of dollars so far, they're certain to use their money for television ads as well.More from MPR