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Who killed the Legislature's bipartisan, leadership-backed early-ed initiatives?

For the first few months of the recently concluded legislative session, a handful of early-childhood-education initiatives enjoyed near-universal acceptance. Backed by stacks of research, requiring exceptionally modest funding or none at all and blessed with the endorsements of both political parties as well as a power-packed roster of business and civic leaders, the measures seemed the only likely shoo-ins of the session.

House and Senate GOP leaders weren’t crazy about aligning themselves with an issue high on Gov. Mark Dayton’s agenda, but the party was helped over its discomfort by the backing of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and current and former executives from Best Buy; General Mills; Cargill and the Cargill Foundation; UnitedHealthcare; Ecolab; Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi; Blue Cross; 3M; Medtronic; and Piper Jaffrey, as well as a host of foundations.

Still, in the wee hours one night in late March, the early-ed initiatives were stricken from the state House of Representatives’ omnibus education bills. With such controversial items as vouchers, an end to traditional teacher tenure and tectonic shifts in school funding also in the air at the time, their spiking generated scant notice.

Now, with dents made in their sleep deficits and a fresh round of sausage-making on the horizon, policy advocates, lobbyists and reporters have had a chance to ask, with seeming consensus about the importance of pre-K, just where did the opposition come from?

The Minnesota Family Council didn’t much like the bills, which included a preschool quality-ratings system, privately funded scholarships for low-income kids and consolidation of the state’s programs in one cabinet agency.

Headquarted in Maple Grove
But the real opposition came from a little-known organization called Education Liberty Watch, mostly in the person of its president, Dr. Karen Effrem. Headquartered in Maple Grove, the group opposes any state role in early education — even, during the last budget cycle, opposing kindergarten readiness assessments and preschool screening.

The accepted research that sold the aforementioned list of business leaders on the idea that investing in early ed would provide handsome returns? Education Liberty Watch disagrees, offering research of its own showing that “intact families and high levels of religiosity” are the key to closing the academic achievement gap.

Dr. Karen Effrem
Education Liberty Watch
Dr. Karen Effrem

To that end it is better, the group holds, to cut taxes “so that one parent can afford to stay home and raise children” and to “support intact families” by reforming welfare policies and no-fault divorce laws.

Founded in 1998 as the Maple River Education Association, the organization’s initial target was a set of state education standards known as the Profiles of Learning.

Changed its name in 2003
In 2003, the group, whose officers included erstwhile gubernatorial candidate Allen Quist and his wife, Julie, changed its name to EdWatch “to more accurately reflect the organization’s growing national influence.”

Late last year, “key members of the EdWatch board had been called to other places and roles in elected office or as staff for other major federal office holders that understand the dangers of the radical transformation of our society that is taking place through education,” according to Education Liberty Watch’s website

Pediatrician Effrem, a longtime activist with the organization, took over. If her name sounds at all familiar, it’s likely because she played a similar lobbying role some six years ago, opposing laws requiring children to be vaccinated before they can enroll in school.

Board members include attorney Majorie Holsten, KTLK talk show host and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Sue Jeffers and Republican Liberty Caucus member Greg O’Connor.

'Perverse incentives'
Effrem testified before the legislature several times during the recent session, on topics ranging from the importance of the two-parent family to the dangers of early ed and the “perverse incentives” privately funded scholarships would create for the poor to allow their children to be raised by others.

Education Liberty Watch’s official presence is relatively low. A PayPal button on its website promises contributions are tax deductible, and the group is registered with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office as a nonprofit. It does not, however, appear in the state Attorney General’s database of charities soliciting in Minnesota. (There are some organizations that are not required to register with the AG’s Office, but most do anyway, in the hope of appearing trustworthy to potential donors.)

Effrem is not registered as a lobbyist, which might be because she is paid less than $3,000 a year to influence lawmakers, spends less than $250 or fewer than 50 hours a year in efforts to do so. Whether she is paid is hard to say, in part because the group does not show up on Guidestar, the database that tracks IRS nonprofit reporting forms which would reveal such data.

A policy consensus until late March
Just how she and Education Liberty Watch came to have enough power to undo a seeming policy consensus is unclear. Early-ed lobbyists say the bills had the backing of House and Senate GOP leaders until the point in late March when numerous education initiatives were consolidated into two omnibus bills.

Exercise influence they did, however. A dozen Republicans threatened to vote against the umbrella legislation unless the statewide expansion of a preschool quality-ratings system piloted by the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) and several other early-ed initiatives were scuttled.

Passage of the measures would have positioned Minnesota well in the running for a new, third round of $500 million in pre-K-focused federal Race to the Top grant money — also opposed by Education Liberty Watch as a step toward federal control of education.

There’s more: Check back in this space soon for a rundown of the arguments the group used to win over the holdouts, as well as a rebuttal MELF provided to lawmakers the day after the session ended.

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Comments (20)

Excellent reporting. This is exactly what we're missing in journalism today all too much of the time. It will be less fun for social-engineering religious interests to operate on issues like this with all the sunshine you are aiming at this issue. Your efforts in what can be a very thankless task are greatly appreciated.

I echo Josh's comments. Well done.

Great reporting once again, Beth Hawkins. Thanks!

Fascinating story. I echo the previous comments.

Thank You.

It's hard for me to fathom how these people gather so much influence, this helps.

This is great reporting. A follow up question for me is 'Who are the dozen legislators that pressured Repub leaders to drop the pre-ed proposals?'

It should also be noted that Ed Lib Watch opposes state spending on children's mental health services. They declare that kids do not have mental illnesses.

It should be noted that on this point, again, there is a vast weight of empirical evidence in opposition.

Anti-preschool, anti-vax, anti-medical care. The real question then, is how does anyone at all consider this group polite company and not someone to be gently shown the door?

I hope someone investigates Edwatch and Effram. She is at EVERY education hearing at the Capitol and testifies on lots of things. I think it is very suspicious that she is not registered as a lobbyist or that the group does not report on its donations. These people once had a meeting at the (old) Minnesota Club and I wondered way back then who was paying for that. I was surprised to see them there.

OK, you 12 Republicans, show yourself so you can be savaged.

Don't worry Hugh, they won't.

First, that this woman is a pediatrician is itself a travesty. How does she treat children’s illnesses? With leeches? Bloodletting?

Second, that she has apparently been able to exert an extraordinary amount of influence on legislation that could easily have a profound effect on the state for a generation suggests – even if I agreed with her, and I emphatically do not – that there’s something very wrong with the legislative process. A mountain of research stretching back decades, support from both parties and from business leaders and the Chamber of Commerce – a combination that’s very nearly unheard of in ANY endeavor, much less education – and she’s able to scuttle the bill almost single-handed?

It makes a travesty of any notion of serving the interests of all, or even a majority, of the citizens of the state.

A good story, Beth, but not nearly enough – who ARE these people? Bring Edwatch and Effram into the daylight where we can see what they’re about. Then, find out who those 12 Republicans are. They deserve to be pilloried.

Isn't this the group that launched Michele Bachmann's political career? Could that have something to do with their ability to so easily influence the Republican agenda?

A current sample of Effrem's loopy reasoning and unimpeachable sources is available at http://looktruenorth.com/family/education/16768-there-is-nothing-free-ma...

Thank you for the reporting. This outfit was causing crazy thinking when I was in the Senate over ten years ago! Keep exposing them and their supporters.

What a bunch of Yes-People the readers of this site seem to be. Why cite Look True North if you want to know what Education Liberty Watch says? Go read their (respected--not loopy) collected research resources; they're not hiding. www.edlibertywatch.org is the URL, I believe.

A tiny handful of extremists was all it took, threatening to crack open the solid Republican caucus. Republican agenda requires an unbroken front. It dares not compromise because any trickle can be fatal to their purposes. They have to get everything now, because they cannot win at any gradualism. It pays to note that the dozen extremists threatened their own caucus with what the Republicans have been trying to use on Dayton. Any break in a solid front threatens the whole agenda.

OK – I went to the website – www.edlibertywatch.org is the correct URL.

To be extremely polite, it’s loopy. The “research” is right wing propaganda. If it’s “respected,” it’s only “respected” in households of the equally loopy.

The name EdWatch rang my Bachmann bell. From City Pages, 2007:

She didn't always stay at home, though. Increasingly, Bachmann was hitting the church and school circuit as a speaker, railing against what she deemed to be unreasonable federal and state mandates for education. She was a prized pupil in something called the Maple River Education Coalition, which later became EdWatch. (Former Governor Jesse Ventura once said of them, "The Maple River group, they think UFOs are landing next month. They think it's some big government federal conspiracy!") According to the mission statement on its website, EdWatch is concerned about the "undermining" of "constitutional freedoms" due in part to the country's "entire educational system." In the words of one editorial column reposted at the site, "Public education is not among the enumerated powers of the federal government."

Read on at http://www.citypages.com/2006-10-04/news/the-chosen-one/2/

For more on the antecedents of EdWatch:

http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/199909/07_kastem_profile/

Loopy ain't simply in the eye of the beholder.

Bill Evers of the Hoover Institution, Sandra Stotsky and Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas--those sound like loopy research institutions and researchers. The Journal of Education Policy--definitely a bunch of loopsters get published there. National Bureau of Economic Research, Hickman at Ohio State University, Journal of Family Issues ... yep, definitely all illegitimate wide-eyed dreamers. Not a legitimate education researcher in the bunch.

Look, those are all names of just a few of the respected--NOT loopy--research sources Education Liberty Watch relies upon to support its conclusions on policy. You can disagree, but you can't honestly call the research loopy.

And "Michele Bachmann is for it"--there's a proof of damnability there. Guilt by association may be a proof for you, but for those who operate by logic, it doesn't advance you one step in the real question, which is, does the education research support Ed Liberty Watch's views, or doesn't it?

Dagny, the Hoover Institution is a conservative think-tank; Jay P. Greene cut his teeth at a Conservative/Libertarian think-tank called the Manhattan Institute and is Sandra Stotsky's mentor and he regularly links to Manhattan Institute "research" on his blog; Stotsky's known for her book about how teaching kids to read stories with minority and female characters is less effective than with white male characters. It took me a minute and a half of Google searching to find plenty of support for the argument that these are "loopy" researchers and I'm sure if we dug a little further we'd be able to turn up some concrete evidence of bias in their research.