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Seagren brings different style but same philosophy
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State Rep. Alice Seagren was named Tuesday as Minnesota's new education comissioner. "I won't be afraid to tackle some controversial issues and I won't be afraid to ruffle some feathers. But people should know that I'll be doing it in a respectful way. ... The bottom line is the needs of kids," Seagren said. (MPR photo/Tim Pugmire)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty says his new education commissioner will bring a different style to the job than her predecessor, but no less commitment to school reform. Pawlenty announced Tuesday his selection of Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, to fill the vacant cabinet post. Lawmakers and education leaders say Seagren's style and insider knowledge make her an excellent choice to lead the Minnesota Department of Education.

St. Paul, Minn. — The state has been without an education commissioner since May. That's when the DFL-controlled Senate rejected the confirmation of Cheri Pierson Yecke, who served 15 months on the job. It's still a sore spot for Gov. Pawlenty.

"What happened to Commissioner Yecke is a travesty. We took one of the brightest, most talented, most gifted, most experienced educational leaders in the country, and threw her out of Minnesota," Pawlenty says.

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Image Pawlenty and Seagren

Supporters say Yecke was an effective commissioner who pushed through new academic standards, and brought the state into compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Critics claim she was too political and a divisive force in education. Pawlenty says it's now time to move on, but without changing direction or priorities.

"We are very fortunate to have somebody, in my view, who has an equal appetite for reform -- Rep. Seagren -- but has a different style, and has the relationships and the experience to present things," Pawlenty says. "Her style, I think, is to be measured and calm. But make no mistake, she is the iron fist in the velvet glove."

Pawlenty says Seagren has a solid track record of results after 12 years in the Legislature, including the last five as chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Finance Committee. She's been a strong advocate for basing teacher pay on classroom performance rather than years of service. She also played a key role in the switch to new academic standards, helping negotiate a compromise on social studies requirements.

Seagren began her political career on the Bloomington school board. She says she got involved trying to meet the educational needs of her two children, one gifted, the other disabled. Seagren describes herself as a consensus-builder who can work with legislators, teachers and parents.

"I won't be afraid to tackle controversial issues, and won't be afraid to ruffle some feathers. But people should know I'll be doing it in a respectful way that recognizes their profession," Seagren says. "The bottom line is the needs of kids. I want kids to achieve, and the adults have to work together to make that happen and not have any personal agendas that get in the way."

Her style, I think, is to be measured and calm. But make no mistake, she is the iron fist in the velvet glove.
- Gov. Tim Pawlenty, describing Alice Seagren

Seagren says she has deep respect for the state's education organizations. Representatives from several of those lobbying groups have similar feelings. Judy Schaubach, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union, says Seagren understands the challenges facing teachers in the classrooms.

"She's obviously very knowledgeable about the issues. She's probably dealt with virtually every education issue in Minnesota during her time at the Capitol," says Schaubach. "And she really understands the history in Minnesota and how the Minnesota education system works. So I think that's really a positive."

Like Yecke, Seagren will also face a Senate confirmation vote. Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, will oversee hearings as chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Kelley voted against the confirmation of Cheri Pierson Yecke. But he says the governor's replacement is a positive step forward for education.

"Rep. Seagren's familiarity with the legislative process, and her record of taking stands supportive of public education, are different -- and better -- than the ones that former commissioner Yecke has demonstrated," says Kelley.

Kelley says he's not sure how soon his committee might take up the confirmation during the 2005 session. Meanwhile, Alice Seagren says she'll need a few weeks to make her transition from state representative to education commissioner. She's scheduled to officially begin her new duties on Sept. 1.

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