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Schools

She's no stranger to discord

Passionate or polarizing? When it comes to Florida's new K-12 chancellor, it depends whom you ask.

By RON MATUS
Published August 31, 2005


The person picked this week to be Florida's K-12 chancellor is an outspoken social conservative whom supporters call a master of education policy but critics accuse of waging a stealth campaign to allow the teaching of creationism in Minnesota schools.

Cheri Yecke, 50, was named to the K-12 chancellor position left vacant when Jim Warford resigned in July. One of the top spots in Florida's education heirarchy, the chancellor reports to Education Commissioner John Winn and oversees standards for 160,000 teachers and 2.7-million students.

Among other issues, Yecke is expected to push Department of Education positions on middle school reform - she wrote a book on the issue, The War Against Excellence - and performance pay for teachers.

But critics say Floridians shouldn't be surprised if creationism becomes an issue, too.

When Minnesota state science standards were reviewed in 2003, Yecke subtly tried to open the door for faith-based theories such as intelligent design, said Russanne Low, a former University of Minnesota researcher who participated in the review.

Yecke "misrepresented" the position of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on the issue, implying it sanctioned the teaching of alternative theories, said Low, who now works at a climate research center in Colorado.

And when the main committee's pro-evolution position was posted for public review, she said, Yecke's office altered the language to imply evolution was only one of several credible theories that explain the diversity of life on earth - a position the vast majority of scientists say is bunk.

"She had an agenda," Low said.

Yecke's response: Absolutely not true.

There were multiple committee drafts, and when her office posted the wrong one, she said, it quickly made a correction.

As for misrepresenting No Child's mandates, she said Low must have been confused.

Yecke summed up her position this way: Students should be told that evolution is controversial, but science teachers should proceed to teach it.

"The kids aren't dumb," she said. "You may as well acknowledge there are different beliefs and move on."

Yecke said she believes "God created heavens and the earth ... but my personal belief has no bearing on what should be taught in the schools."

She bemoaned the possibility that a messy debate over evolution in Florida might divert attention from the big issues she wants to focus on: academic improvement, accountability and closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Gov. Jeb Bush and Winn have declined to state their positions on evolution and intelligent design. But some observers say a debate is inevitable when Florida science standards are reviewed next year.

Yecke said she would not make it an issue. "No, no, heavens no," she said.

Yecke begins work as chancellor in October.

Her resume is deep.

A former teacher, she has served as the top education official in both Minnesota and Virginia, and has directed teacher quality and school choice programs at the U.S. Department of Education.

Supporters praise her command of detail.

"The key with Cheri is, you have to make the case, based on the facts and the evidence," said Kirk T. Shroder, who was president of the Virginia Board of Education from 1998 to 2002, when Yecke was deputy education secretary.

Yecke has been a consistently strong advocate for high-stakes testing, school choice and accountability - all positions that put her in synch with Bush's education platform.

She has not hesitated to criticize teachers unions, or to pan the system for failing to close the achievement gap.

She says the link between education spending and quality is overstated.

Supporters call her passionate. Critics say she's polarizing.

As a Republican appointee in Minnesota, she spearheaded a drive to rate schools from one to five stars, a system similar to Florida's school grades.

She also oversaw efforts to overhaul standards.

When some teachers complained that her revision of social studies standards gave them a hard-right tilt, she replied that it would be inappropriate to have a "hate America" agenda taught in schools, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Her efforts drew so much criticism, the Democrat-led state Senate refused to confirm her last year after more than a year on the job.

"Her approach was driving people apart," said Minnesota state Sen. Steve Kelly. "I hope her work helps Florida schools get better, but I think people are going to have to keep an eye on her."

If the Senate action set her back, Yecke didn't show it.

Two days later, she called a Minnesota radio show to join a discussion about her sacking.

"Sometimes challenging the status quo makes people feel threatened," she said.

Education isn't the only thing Yecke feels strongly about.

To take the Florida job, she had to suspend a run for Congress on a platform that includes a curb on government spending and banning same-sex marriage.

Since her stint as Minnesota's education commissioner, she has been doing research and writing newspaper columns as a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative Minnesota think tank.

She said she'd like to keep that position, if her new bosses in Florida give the okay.

"I love to write," she said.

Recent columns address sex offenders, pornography, judicial filibusters and childhood obesity.

One missive decried how often successful women are attacked for their looks.

One of Yecke's examples: media digs at Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state turned congresswoman turned U.S. Senate candidate.

"Where are the feminists?" Yecke wrote. "Their silence speaks volumes about their convictions and partisan leanings. After all, it is mainly conservative women who have been the victims of this sort of media slashing.

"Sad to say, with few exceptions, the circling vultures are left-leaning women."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 31, 2005, 01:20:10]


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