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Lawmakers hear divided opinions on Yecke confirmation
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Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke faced the Senate committee considering her confirmation. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Minnesota Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke is trying to convince lawmakers that she's been an effective leader for public education the past year and deserves to keep her title. Several supporters offered similar assessments Thursday night during the first of two Senate committee hearings on Yecke's confirmation. But critics lined up to portray the commissioner as a divisive force who should be removed from the job.

St. Paul, Minn. — Commissioner Yecke received a largely warm reception and faced few pointed questions from members of the Senate Education Committee. She stressed her Minnesota roots, outlined her credentials and reviewed her first-year accomplishments leading the state Department of Education. Yecke has already implemented several sweeping reforms. But she says it would have been a similar pace for any commissioner.

"The Legislature had repealed the Profile, new standards had to be written, legislation had called for a statewide accountability system and school report cards," Yecke said. "There was new federal law with which we had to comply. In other words, in many ways much of the agenda had already been set. It was my job to run a state agency and make all of this come together."

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Image Sen. Steve Kelley

Gov. Pawlenty appointed Yecke 14 months ago. Since then, she's been a highly visible and extremely polarizing figure. Yecke has taken the most heat over her proposal for new social studies standards. She hand-picked committees of educators and parents to develop the learning requirements.

Lisa Pederson, part of a parents group opposing Yecke's confirmation, claims the commissioner mishandled the whole standards issue.

"The experience of our members who have served on several of the committees is that the process was politicized and committee composition was manipulated," Pederson said. "It is our observation that too little credence was given to professional public school educators in the development of the standards and too much was given to members with a clear political agenda."

Yecke supporters urged committee members to look at her qualifications, not political philosophy. Stu Lade, a teacher from Brainerd, described the commissioner as hard working, insightful and approachable.

"In her first year she had made the department responsive to the needs of classroom teachers by asking for their participation in education policy in a manner that far outdistances previous commissioners," Lade said.

Yecke also received an endorsement from the executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association. He was the only leader of a major, statewide education organization to weigh in on the confirmation.

The inclusion of testimony from opponents and supporters is an unusual approach for a Senate confirmation hearing. Commissioners typically appear alone for a brief exchange with lawmakers. Yecke says she accepts the fact there are deeply divided opinions about her confirmation.

"Well it seemed that nearly every person who spoke in opposition had problems with the social studies standards," Yecke said. "So, it appears to be that that's driving some discontent."

The fate of the commissioner remains unclear. Another Senate panel voted earlier this week to reject the confirmation of Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau as transportation commissioner. But Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says there's no pre-determined strategy to reject Yecke too.

"I haven't polled the members of the committee," Kelley said. "I know that other members of the Senate, Democrats, have told me that they haven't made up their minds. They're waiting to hear the outcome, to hear the testimony and the kind of things that will come out of this hearing and the next hearing."

Kelley's committee will take up Yecke's confirmation again April 13. That's when members will vote on their recommendation to the full Senate.

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