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Blaine, Minn. — Cheri Pierson Yecke and her husband, Dennis, recently finished remodeling the basement of their spacious, new suburban home in Blaine. She joked that the work should help them get a better selling price. Yecke has been thinking about the housing market and her career options now that she's unemployed.
The Minnesota Senate voted along party lines early Sunday to reject her confirmation as state education commissioner. Yecke says she's disappointed with the outcome but will hold her head high.
"I am very proud of what we've accomplished," she said. "I'm very grateful to the governor for giving me the opportunity. And I worry about him finding anyone who's going to be willing to step into this position now, because he has made it clear that his policies will continue. So, the next person can be prepared to be a pinata like I've been for the past six months and just get beat for everything you do."
It is so unfortunate that the level of political discourse has fallen into the gutter... You see it in Washington. I never expected to see it here in the heartland.
Yecke has been a lightening rod for criticism the past year as she pushed for several key education reforms during a time of tight state finances. She created report cards that detail the academic performance of individual schools, brought the state into compliance with new federal testing and accountability rules, and guided the development of new academic standards. The controversy created from her proposed social studies standards played a big part in her Senate confirmation hearings. Some considered the initials drafts tainted by conservative viewpoints
DFL critics claimed Yecke was a divisive force in public education. Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar says the commissioner came from Virginia with some East Coast ideas that didn't fit well in Minnesota.
"Quite often you would hear public pronouncements how terrible Minnesota schools were. In fact we're in the top five in our ACT test scores. We test very well. Do we have problems? Absolutely. Let's identify our problems and move forward. So, the criticism of our present school system from someone who had just moved here was a little hard to take," he said.
Yecke says she has always supported Minnesota schools, students and teachers. She says she's tried to get the state talking about its biggest shortcoming -- the achievement gap between black students and the white classmates.
Yecke says she will look for another job where she can work on education policy. She'll also look for a political climate less divisive than the one she's experienced in Minnesota.
"It is so unfortunate that the level of political discourse has fallen into the gutter. It is just the politics of personal destruction. You see it in Washington. You shouldn't see it anywhere. You see it in Washington. I never expected to see it here in the heartland," she said. Yecke says she's advising the state's next education commissioner to stand tall and never be satisfied with the status quo. Still, she wonders who might want the job under the current climate.
David Strom of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota says he also see a potential problem filling the position. Strom, who's been a Yecke supporter, says the confirmation vote sends a terrible signal to potential candidates.
"The rejection of Cheri Pierson Yecke, I think, is going to have just tremendous consequences over the years. Because I'll just tell you, never again is someone going to come from outside the state of Minnesota to go into a controversial position," Strom said. Gov. Pawlenty issued a statement blasting the vote as a great disservice to the state. He could name an interim leader for the Minnesota Department of Education as early as Monday.