The Taskmaster

The education commissioner changes her tune

"Nothing could be more clear. The federal government needs to stop micro-managing state affairs, and decreasing its role in education would be a good place to start." So said current Minnesota Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke, in a speech to the Education Leaders Council Conference in Dallas, Texas, in September 1997. At the time, Yecke was a member of the Virginia State Board of Education, and was among those who had successfully opposed an attempt by the Clinton administration to adopt national tests for students in America's public schools.

In another argument in her speech against Clinton's national test proposal, Yecke quoted a section of a federal law that says, "The establishment of the Department of Education shall not increase the authority of the Federal Government over education." But if we flash forward to the education policies emerging during the Bush administration, and Yecke's role in implementing them, her position on Washington's involvement in local public schools seems to be more a matter of partisanship than principle.

The centerpiece of Bush's education agenda is the No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress two years ago. While it does not exert as much direct federal control over education as Clinton's national tests would have, there is no question of its forceful impact on how Minnesota manages its public schools and measures what students learn. During the last legislative session, state education officials hurriedly created statewide standards for reading and math in order to comply with federal funding provisions mandated under NCLBA.

About face: Cheri Pierson Yecke knows what your kids should learn
Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Education
About face: Cheri Pierson Yecke knows what your kids should learn

The current push to create statewide standards for science and social studies is also driven by NCLBA monies from Washington. After two years, public schools with low participation rates or test scores on the statewide tests are in danger of having their federal education funds withdrawn if parents in those schools opt to have the money transferred to tutoring programs for their children.

Yecke has played an active role in changing education policies at both the federal and state levels. Shortly after President Bush was elected, he appointed her to be director of teacher quality and school choice at the U.S. Department of Education. In January of this year, after Governor Pawlenty had named Yecke to the state's top education post, federal education commissioner Rod Paige said, "Cheri Yecke has played a critical role in our efforts to implement the No Child Left Behind Act."

Once in Minnesota, Yecke helped ram through the new reading and math standards required to get No Child Left Behind funding. This September, almost exactly six years after she decried encroaching federal involvement in education, she praised the act as "a strong law, a morally righteous law." (A spokesperson for Yecke at the education department did not follow through on a pledge to get a statement from the commissioner for this story.)

It's now clear that Yecke's earlier objection to Clinton's education policies had less to do with federal intervention than with who is doing the intervening. Ironically, the clamoring for more local autonomy in education stems from a nationally coordinated, ideologically driven movement that seeks to deprive public schools of stable funding and force them to compete in the private market. And Yecke is clearly a part of that movement.

This explains why Yecke has frequently stated that the amount of money a school receives does not necessarily affect its performance, and why she readily acquiesced to Pawlenty's budget cuts in education during the last session. It is why her 1997 speech was reprinted as the cover story in the February/March 1998 edition of Intellectual Ammunition, a public policy magazine published by the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank based in Chicago, whose education philosophy is prominently displayed on its website: "Government schools are islands of socialism in a sea of competition and choice."

The Heartland Institute, the Fordham Foundation, and other organizations pushing for conservative, free-market oriented education reforms have made progress through the efforts of Bush and Yecke. The process and the people chosen by Yecke's education department to develop Minnesota's standards reflect her conservative bias (see "Cooking the Books," 11/12/03). The federal law advocated and implemented by Bush and Yecke is structured so that any school that departs from those standards will be financially punished.

Thus, in this heated, ideologically driven debate over the content and enforcement of what thousands of Minnesota students are taught in the classroom, Yecke has proven herself to be a conservative partisan whose view of federal involvement has been hypocritically flexible.

 
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