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January 9, 2003

Pioneer Press

Foot soldiers in a battle over the future of public education in Minnesota came to the state Capitol on Wednesday, believing a major victory is in sight.

"We're going to be as tenacious as a bulldog on the back end of somebody's behind,'' said Evie Salzman of Cannon Falls as she helped organize troops in the Capitol rotunda.

The issue is the Profile of Learning, a series of graduation standards begun with the best intentions by education experts a decade ago and now a few votes away from political demise. The turnaround is due at least in part to the noise raised by Salzman and other supporters of the Maple River Education Coalition, a small, grass-roots group of conservatives who filled the rotunda with anti-Profile righteousness.

Many citizens and advocacy groups will walk into the Capitol during the next few months hoping to influence the course of lawmaking; few will emerge with the clout of the Maple River Education Coalition. The group's techniques and tenacity provide a primer of sorts for aspiring citizen advocates.

"Go and beat on the door of every senator, every legislator,'' Sen. Michele Bachmann, RStillwater, told the Profile foes. Bachmann credits her two election victories to anti-Profile activism. Waving well-worn copies of federal and state education regulations, she said the new standards have turned "the finest education system in the world over to the federal government.''

The Profile seems an odd issue to stir such passions. But it has been under attack since it was put into effect in 1998 as a way of ensuring that high school graduates meet statewide standards in a variety of content areas. The Maple River Education Coalition formed the same year to fight the Profile.

"They have focused like a laser,'' said Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, the House majority whip and an early Profile opponent. House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, credits the coalition with publicizing the issue and with helping to make it a "defining issue'' for Republican conservatives.

Critics acknowledge the coalition's influence but accuse its members of focusing on ideology rather than educational theory. Bachmann and other Maple River adherents accuse the public education system of directing many grade-school children into career tracks instead of offering them the broadest array of opportunities. Coalition critics say that isn't true.

Minnesota students continue to be tops in the nation in college entrance exams and other national tests. But the graduation standards, initially developed by Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, have always been a tough sell to the public and to many teachers.

While some states developed specific content standards, Minnesota took a different approach, emphasizing that students must show what they have learned beyond paper-and-pencil testing.

For the first time since the Profile went into effect, the governor, Republican Tim Pawlenty, wants to repeal it. The Republican-controlled House is making Profile repeal a priority. Pressure is building on the Democratic-Farmer-Laborcontrolled Senate to follow suit.

Repeal would be a major victory for the coalition, whose supporters voiced a variety of concerns about big-government intrusion into their local schools.

"It's more social engineering than actual academics,'' said Bob Stapleton of Savage. Gloria Norton of Wyoming, Minn., said she worried that the push for statewide and federal standards has eliminated references to the Christian background of the Founding Fathers in the teaching of history, and has embraced a "global philosophy'' that de-emphasizes U.S. sovereignty.

"The students in the public schools have been dumbed down,'' added Cyndy Bruckbauer of Golden Valley after she visited her state senator, Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins. She said she has taken her two children out of public school and put them in a private Christian school, mainly because she believes public school standards are too low. Several of those attending the rally said their children were in private schools or educated at home.

Karen Effrem of Plymouth, a physician whose two school-aged children attend a private school, said the Profile "affects everyone,'' even families without children in the public system. "The purpose of education is being changed, from academics and creating citizens... to a focus on attitudes, values, beliefs and minimum entry-level job skills,'' she said.

Judy Schaubach, president of Education Minnesota, the teachers union, noted that federal education law signed by President Bush, a Republican, requires states to have standards. "Hopefully, we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater,'' she said.

Lisa Lindberg, an education consultant who supports the Profile, said the debate has become ideological and has strayed from a focus on educational research. "I have a problem with a small percentage of the population trying to call the shots in education for the greater good,'' she said.

But Tuesday was a day for the coalition to trumpet its successes.

Republican activist Julie Quist, who serves as vice president of the coalition, said the group is a populist, grass-roots movement that is as opposed to Bush's "No Child Left Behind'' federal education bill as it is to the Profile. New House Rep. Tony Kornish, R-Good Thunder, said Maple River supporters brought the issue to his attention and helped him win a competitive open seat in November.

Renee Doyle, founder of the group and a chief spokeswoman, introduced Kornish and other anti-Profile, newly elected House and Senate members in the rotunda...the payoff for four years of organizing and spreading the word.

"We are the voice that has educated the citizens of Minnesota...not the education community,'' she said.

John Welsh contributed to this report. Jim Ragsdale can be reached at jragsdale@pioneerpress.com or (651)228-5529.


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