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Senate panel votes against Yecke confirmation
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Cheri Pierson Yecke lost a crucial vote in the Senate Education Committee Tuesday, when members voted 6-4 against her confirmation. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
State Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke says she'll be back at work as usual on Wednesday, even though a key legislative panel wants her removed from the job she's held for over a year. Members of the DFL-controlled Senate Education Committee voted on a 6-to-4 party-line vote Tuesday to reject Yecke's confirmation as commissioner. The recommendation now goes to the full Senate.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Senate Education Committee began taking testimony for and against the commissioner at a hearing three-and-a-half weeks ago. Supporters described Cheri Pierson Yecke as a strong, well-qualified leader who can make the changes necessary in public schools. Opponents claim her strong opinions on school reform have done more to divide various education factions than bring them together. The second hearing brought more of the same.

Sen. Steve Kelley, the committee chairman, says those polarized views are the problem. "I think the commissioner has a lot of leadership skills, and I'm not looking for a healer. But I don't want someone who by rhetoric or otherwise is an active divider," he said.

Yecke has been a lightening rod since taking the job 14 months ago. She's brought the state into compliance with the increasing unpopular provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. She also guided the development of new academic standards, including a controversial set of proposed social studies requirements.

Yecke vigorously defended her credentials and job performance during the first hearing. This time, she appeared resigned to her fate as she described the inherent pitfalls of the job.

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Image Sen. Steve Kelley

"I serve the public education establishment. I work with teachers. I work with superintendents, principals and the education organizations. They're a very important constituency. I also work for parents. And sometimes you're going to have a situation when you have to balance the desires of those two constituencies," she said.

Still, most Democrats on the committee say they've heard mainly complaints about the commissioner from both parents and educators.

Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, says he does not like Yecke's leadership style or her education agenda.

"I see where we're going as not the right direction. I see that we could be doing so much more, so differently in education. That's where I'd like to be. But if we don't have some better leadership, we're not going to get there," he said.

Republicans on the committee argued unsuccessfully for Yecke's approval. They say the Senate should respect the governor's choice for commissioner, even if there are philosophical disagreements about education policy.

Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, says the debate was too partisan. "I don't think any of us has quite seen anything like this before. There's just an element of determination and mean spiritedness. There's no justification for this kind of action."

Gov. Pawlenty also blasted the committee action. In a written statement, he said it was a "vote against innovation, accountability and reform in education."

Commissioner Yecke described the vote as disappointing, but not the end of the story. She says she plans to continue working hard to serve the state until she's forced to leave. Yecke says she's optimistic she can still win a favorable vote in the full Senate.

"I know that I'm doing my best for the children of Minnesota. I've worked very hard over the past year. I'm very pleased with what we've been able to accomplish. And tomorrow I'll just head back to the office and keep going," she said. Sen. Kelley says he'll seek quick action by the full Senate on the confirmation. Leadership could agree, or set aside a vote indefinitely. In that case, Yecke could continue to serve. She finds herself in the same position as Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also awaits a Senate vote after a committee recommended against her confirmation as transportation commissioner.

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