Farewells at the Capitol

/ 10 March 2012 / jennifer

Lori Sturdevant, Star Tribune, March 10, 2012 –

Among those who have left or are leaving are legislators who care more about results than credit — which brings us to education.

The 2012 legislative session is a little past half spent. But the Capitol already has that good-bye feeling.

That sense arrives early in a redistricting year, when retirement announcements come in bunches.

At week’s end, the lame-duck count kept by my basement buddies showed 11 legislators winging their way outta here at session’s end, and 12 more (and counting) running for an office other than their current one.

In addition, nine pairs of incumbents are vying with each other, either in intraparty contests or the general election. That’s another nine goodbyes on the way.

The calendar cleared Wednesday so the Legislature could go to a funeral in Granite Falls. The passing of gentle, thoughtful state Sen. Gary Kubly, who suffered from ALS, was not a surprise. But it put a pall on spirits.

So did word that same day that former state Sen. Gary DeCramer died. The DFLer gave southwestern Minnesota 10 years of smart representation in the 1980s before becoming a popular public-policy professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Longtime state demographer Tom Gillaspy’s retirement party Tuesday produced some welcome chuckles, but, as these things always do, it ended with goodbye.

Gov. Mark Dayton set the tone by noting two impending farewells in his Feb. 15 State of the State address. He invited applause for two _grandes dames_of state education policy, Republican Sen. Gen Olson of Minnetrista and DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling of Roseville. They’re retiring — in Olson’s case, ending a 30-year legislative career; in Greiling’s, 20 years.

The applause was deserved, for a lot more than durability. Olson and Greiling are both staunch partisans. But neither has shied away from working with members of the other party for the sake of better education. Neither is so wedded to party orthodoxy that she won’t cut a deal.

Both have been among the rare Capitol birds who care more about achieving results than getting credit.

It’s a shame to see them go just when a bird of similar feather is nesting in the governor’s office. For an occupant of that space, Dayton seems unusually disinclined to hog the limelight or demand his way on every little thing.

And, like Olson and Greiling, he appears to understand that getting education right isn’t just one factor in building Minnesota’s future. It _is _Minnesota’s future. The third competitive federal grant Minnesota has won on his watch for education improvement, $28.2 million announced Friday, attests to his education emphasis.

Olson says she’s happy to credit Dayton for improvements in the teaching of reading that she shepherded into law last year, after years of work. In 2009, she and former DFL Sen. Kathy Saltzman teamed up to strengthen literacy training for would-be teachers. Olson’s 2011 bill required schools to develop reading proficiency plans and to train incumbent teachers in the latest research-based literacy learning methods.

“It wouldn’t have happened if the governor hadn’t signed it,” Olson generously allowed. “That can be his legacy.”

It could be a fine one. Getting children to read proficiently by third grade is bedrock stuff for a state whose economic health depends on a high-quality workforce.

Greiling shares Olson’s enthusiasm for a focus on literacy and for last session’s other K-12 policy achievement, teacher and principal evaluations. A new system is in the works in which student test results will count for at least a third of the measure of teacher performance.

But the two education mavens part company over this year’s marquee education policy bill, now in conference committee. It amends teacher tenure rules governing layoffs to factor in teacher performance.

Olson holds that teacher evaluation must be linked to dollars-and-cents consequences to be a meaningful quality improvement tool. To her, the tenure bill is a major step in that direction. To Greiling, it’s “small potatoes.” Republicans “aren’t for big authentic reform. They’re for the cheap stuff,” she says.

By her lights, real reform would couple more effective teaching practices in the core cities, where money isn’t scarce but results are, with more funding for other districts where underfunding is eroding quality.

A recovering economy presents the prospect that within a few years, the Legislature could be in a position to take up Greiling’s vision for reform.

But 22 years of divided government tell me that DFL-backed funding increases won’t come, or won’t last, unless they are linked to Republican-backed measures that tie money to results.

It’s to bad that Greiling and Olson won’t be around to strike that deal. But Dayton might be — and if he is, I hope he’ll remember why he paid them that State of the State tribute.


Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.