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St. Paul, Minn. — Fourteen months ago, Gov. Pawlenty convinced a U.S. Department of Education official to become his education commissioner. He compared the hiring of Minnesota-native Cheri Pierson Yecke to a sports team getting a first-round draft choice. The Republican governor also described his expectations for public education.
"We need to regain the edge that we have lost as an education innovator," Pawlenty said. "And Dr. Yecke is precisely the right person to lead that change."
Yecke has been a tireless advocate for Pawlenty's education agenda. She's implemented several key education reforms over the past year and restructured the Department of Education. Yecke's efforts have been embraced by some and scorned by others.
"I had no earthly clue that this would be as contentious as it has been," Yecke said.
Yecke says she's proud of her first-year accomplishments. The list includes bringing Minnesota into compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law, developing new state academic standards to replace the Profile of Learning and issuing new report cards that use a star system to rank schools. Yecke says change comes hard in education. She says under the circumstances, some controversy was unavoidable.
"It was the perfect storm," Yecke said. "It was No Child Left Behind. It was a $4.5 billion deficit and a repeal of the Profile. There was a lot of work that had to be done. And the people in this agency have worked diligently over the past year to meet all our goals to accomplish all that we've accomplished."
Yecke won't try to grade her job performance. She says that's up to others. There are a lot of opinions about the commissioner -- and few of them are neutral. Critics and supporters have set up online petitions to try to sway the confirmation vote.
Carrie Lucking is a social studies teacher at Hopkins High School and founder of the Alliance to Block the Confirmation of the Commissioner. The group has collected nearly 4,000 electronic signatures from people unhappy with Yecke. Some question her commitment to public schools. Others criticize what they see as Yecke's right-wing political agenda. Lucking says her argument with Yecke is not over ideology, but style. She claims the commissioner is just too divisive.
"It used to be that most Minnesotans -- while we may disagree about the nuances -- overall there was a general idea of where our schools were going, and we were mostly on the same page," Lucking said. "Since the commissioner has come, that's just not the case anymore. Suddenly we disagree about everything. That's not good for education."
Yecke supporters are also using online petitions. David Strom, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, says it's inappropriate for lawmakers to deny the governor his choice if that person has done nothing wrong. He says Yecke is one of the best education commissioners the state has ever had.
"What Cheri Pierson Yecke brings that's so unique is not just the intelligence and the ideas, but a burning passion to make things better," Strom said.
Confirmation hearings usually get little attention, and it's not unusual for months to go by before legislators get around to a vote. Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, who will oversee the hearings as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says his colleagues have traditionally accepted the governor's choice. But Kelley says this case is different. He says he's heard a lot of concerns raised about Commissioner Yecke.
"I think it's important for people to speak up, and for the committee to listen to the different points of view about the commissioner," Kelley said. "So, I think the committee is taking it very seriously, because it will be our responsibility to make a recommendation to the full Senate."
Kelley's committee will hear testimony for and against the commissioner Thursday afternoon. A second hearing is scheduled Tuesday, April 13.