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Education leadership team seen as balanced, thoughtful

Education policy advocates were unanimous in their first quick reaction to the newly announced Capitol leadership team: The committee and subcommittee chair appointments in both the state Senate and House of Representatives seem thoughtful, balanced and unlikely to act in lockstep.

“You have some really smart and balanced leadership on all of the committees,” said Brian Sweeney, director of business excellence for Charter School Partners (CSP). “I think they’re thinking of actually governing for two years and of not over-reaching.”

Not only is the lineup of chairs announced Thursday and Friday balanced by geography and race, its members have differing perspectives on some of the thorniest issues likely to dominate the education agenda in the next biennium.

“They could have lined it up in a way so things would just sail through,” said Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools. “They were very thoughtful.”

Other education advocates are confident that the diversity means actual discourse will be required for any single faction to win over enough support to pass its agenda — and a governor whose likely actions vis-a-vis a DFL-controlled Legislature is anybody’s guess.

Dayton’s priorities

Gov. Mark Dayton’s top education priorities are wonky, long-term, structural changes that the last decade’s gridlocked legislatures haven’t so much as glanced at. He walked a very fine line concerning the last biennium’s most controversial education reform proposals, but may well look more kindly on more teacher-friendly versions drafted by his caucus-mates.

In both chambers, the lawmakers who have been the staunchest advocates of education reforms that rank-and-file DFLers have struggled with drew the least-powerful appointments. There are decent cases to be made, however, that they are not necessarily being punished for breaking ranks in recent sessions.

Before the appointments were announced, new Senate leaders decided to revert to a structure of committees used by their House counterparts and that has been used by past DFL-controlled legislatures. This bureaucratic maneuver gives some committees power over others.  

In both chambers, subcommittees responsible for education policy will now report to education finance committees, which will have the authority to kill, revise or pass any bill with a fiscal note — in other words, anything with even the slightest financial implications — on to a general finance committee.

House leadership

Rep. Gene Pelowski
Rep. Gene Pelowski

In the House, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, will chair a single, unified Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee. Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, will run the Education Finance Committee. Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, will head the education policy subcommittee and Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, will chair a newly created Early Childhood and Youth Development Committee.

One of the most senior members of the caucus and a former chair of the K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee, Mariani might have been seen as the natural heir of the finance post held by former Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, who is retiring.

Also the head of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Mariani was one of a small number of DFLers who voted in 2011 in favor of changing teacher licensure laws to further open the state’s teacher corps to teachers trained in so-called alternative certification programs. The change was a priority with CSP, MinnCAN and a number of other education-reform groups but opposed by the statewide teachers union, Education Minnesota.  

Rep. Carlos Mariani
Rep. Carlos Mariani

Mariani did not vote on 2012’s most controversial education matter, a bill that would have mandated the use of a number of measures beyond seniority during teacher layoffs. The House ultimately passed the bill — known colloquially as LIFO, for “last-in, first-out” — and Dayton vetoed it.

The fact that he was passed over for the more powerful finance post could reasonably be construed as retribution, except that he is widely respected as a policy wonk and new E-12 chair Marquart has an education finance background.

Rural-urban balance

The two also offer rural-urban balance, Cecconi noted, adding that Mariani’s Senate counterpart, Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Mpls, is also an urbanite and Hispanic. Torres Ray voted against both alternative certification and LIFO, but is also steeped in the issues facing impoverished schools.

“We are very pleased that Rep. Carlos Mariani and Sen. Patricia Torres Ray will be chairing committees,” said CSP’s Sweeney. “They deeply understand the challenges in closing the achievement gap and they are unafraid to reach across the aisle.”

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray
Sen. Patricia Torres Ray

Torres Ray’s committee will be subordinate to an overarching E-12 division overseen by Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, who has served quietly since 1996. During the last biennium, Wiger sat on the Education Committee, where he voted against alternative certification and licensure and LIFO.

Sen. Terri Bonoff’s appointment as chair of the Higher Ed and Workforce Development Division seems most likely to be motivated by past rank-breaking. The Minnetonka DFLer has enough seniority to merit a leadership post and spent the last biennium on the education committee.

Not only did Bonoff vote for alternative certification and LIFO, last session she broke ranks with her party and voted in favor of using the state reserve fund to accelerate the repayment of 2011’s budget-balancing school funding shift.

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