Cheri Pierson Yecke
Seven people remain in the hunt to become Florida's next education commissioner. Next week, the State Board of Education will trim the list further. Leading to that Sept. 18 meeting, the Gradebook will provide mini profiles, one each day, on the candidates. Today, meet Cheri Yecke.
She's a middle school expert with an impressive resume, a down-to-earth demeanor and as firm a grasp on ed policy as any wonk anywhere. But Cheri Yecke is also preceded by a right-wing rep that could make her an easy target for critics of school accountability.
Jeb Bush yanked Yecke out of Minnesota in 2005 to join his ed team as K-12 Chancellor, essentially the No. 2 at the Department of Education. Her hiring generated a flurry of coverage, including this story in the St. Petersburg Times. But since then, Yecke has been quietly grinding on a suite of policy issues, including teacher quality and performance pay, and largely avoiding the negative spotlight that dogged her during a rocky, 16-month stint as ed czar in the Gopher State (see story and column about those days here.)
A former teacher, Yecke has written two books about middle schools, including "The War Against Excellence." The 2003 publication includes a forward by none other than Bill Bennett, the right-wing culture warrior who served as U.S. education secretary (and yes, admitted gambling problems after penning "The Book of Virtues"). The book, which even has its own website, argues that under the guise of reform, left-wing ideologues hijacked middle schools and diluted academic rigor with fads like "cooperative learning."
Yecke doesn't shy from her social conservatism. According to her resume, she's written nearly 100 op-ed pieces for newspapers, including this one in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which posits a strong link between childhood obesity and "liberal sentencing laws," and this one in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which says it is mainly conservative women like Katherine Harris who are attacked for their looks while liberal feminists look the other way. Yecke also wrote essays for the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative Minneapolis think tank where she was a senior fellow. And her views on the teaching of intelligent design have been blogger fodder for years (for the most recent flare-up, see the St. Pete Times story here and Gradebook post here).
Yecke told The Gradebook she doesn't think her conservative beliefs will be a distraction if she's appointed commish, given Florida's red-state leanings. She also hopes Floridians judge her on her ed record and what she's done the past two years. "I would invite people to talk to superintendents, to the professional organizations," she said. "I've worked hard to have good communication with these folks and that we work to put the kids first."
Priority? Yecke points to achievement gaps, plural, and doesn't limit it to the usual definitions. She says eliminating the divide between white and minority students is a "noble goal" and a "moral obligation." But she also says that schools should avoid focusing on that gap so much that they create another one – between high-performing kids and their own potential. "There needs to be acceleration mechanisms so the kids don't get bored," Yecke said. Otherwise, "we are wasting a natural resource."
- Ron Matus, state education reporter
Tomorrow: Jim Warford