Date: January 27, 2004
Subject: House Ed Policy Committee Hearing, Part I

Like its Senate counterpart, the science session of the hearing went overtime, so the social studies session began a little late (around 12:30 pm). Unlike Friday's gloomy overcast sky, today's clear arctic blue sky provided a striking contrast for the bright white Minnesota Capitol dome and its golden Quadriga sculpture.

The House hearing room in 200 State Office Building is very different from the Senate hearing room in 15 Capitol. The latter is round and elegant, the former is square, with a small extra seating area behind the witness table. The Senate room has a semi-circular arc for a table, the House room has a square U-shaped table. The Senate room is on one level with moveable upholstered chairs, while the House version features fixed theatre-style seating for the observer and witness galleries. The Senate room is lighter and more spacious, with a dome ceiling that sweeps to the M window, while the House room has a conventional ceiling, and its much larger committee is seated closer together, at some places on both sides of the table. The ten-member Senate Education Committee is chaired by Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, while the 31 members of the House Ed Policy Committee are led by Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior. Even entering the House hearing room, with its "air lock" set of solid doors, has an immediately different feel from entering the windowed doors of the Senate hearing room.

These contrasts foreshadowed an intense afternoon of testimonies and questions.

There were about 30 in the observer gallery, plus a large class of AP politics students from Eagan High School who accompanied their teacher, one of the witnesses. There were 10 or 12 committee members seated in the small witness gallery, including Commissoner Yecke and MDE staff. The audience dwindled as the afternoon wore on, and a few of the DFLers were absent during much of the mid-afternoon testimony. Most of the committee appeared to be in attendance.

Rep. Sykora called the meeting back to order after the lunch break. She warned committee members and witnesses about the large number of scheduled testimonies (24), and stated her intent to keep things moving. Later in the afternoon, she moved up the testimonies of out-of-town witnesses, and asked for volunteers to postpone their testimonies until the committee's next hearing, lest the meeting last "until ten o'clock."

Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke opened the session by presenting the January 15 draft of the social studies standards, which incorporates "technical changes" such as typographical corrections, from the December "final draft." Four Academic Standards Committee members followed the Commissioner:

David Lanegran, chair of the geography standards writing committee and Macalester College professor of geography, endorsed the standards with an emphasis on the geography portion.

David Buller presented a thorough rebuttal to the major objections raised by opposition groups to date.

Colin Wilkinson spoke off-the-cuff on the importance of teaching the history of our country, in order to preserve our liberty.

Todd Flanders, headmaster at Providence Academy, spoke in favor of the content-heavy standards, providing evidence that he has seen it work at his school. When asked whether he would implement the standards at Providence, he replied that Providence is already teaching much of what is in the proposed standards.

The social studies minority report was presented by signers Paul Seeba, Mark Doepner-Hove, and Jack Brady. It was announced that two more committee members have signed the letter, Joe Trepanier (teacher) and Amy Davis (parent), and that one was ill and could not attend the hearing. Doepner-Hove reprised his emphatic pragmatic objections to the volume of standards, saying that the standards as written are more suitable to an Advanced Placement class (which he teaches), and/or a two-year period of time. Seeba's most memorable comment was an irrelevant cheap shot at the fourth-place Providence Academy debate team, which was received in shocked silence by the committee. Brady thoroughly condemned the standards as developmentally inappropriate and having too many benchmarks. He also defended the Expanding Horizons framework for geography, which is not used in the standards.

Rep. Seifert asked Doepner-Hove for specific suggestions about what to add, change or delete. Doepner-Hove replied that he would scrap the entire standards document and start over. Rep. Sykora replied that doing so would be pointless, simply producing another document that various groups would have objections to, which is the situation today.

Rep. Jeff Johnson spoke to the group's assertion that teachers were not sufficiently represented or included in the process. He said that some teachers he has spoken with love them, and others hate them; therefore, he is dubious that bringing more teachers into the process would necessarily bring us closer to consensus on the standards.

Rep. Buesgens, whose brother, a public school teacher, served on the Academic Standards Committee, asked why the minority report was not signed by more of the teachers on the committee. Seeba replied, in essence, that the committee was stacked with sympathizers to the Commissioner.

The main event turned out to be the testimony of Paul Spies, co-founder of Minnesotans Against Proposed Social Studies Standards. Spies was well-prepared with a "report card" handout for the proposed standards, which he presented with large flash cards. When Rep. Sykora called "time," Spies asked for and received additional time to finish the report card, which he did. Then he started to present his case for how the composition of the Academic Standards Committee was stacked toward conservative Republicans, even presenting a study of the campaign contributions of the members of the committee. At this point Rep. Sykora interrupted Spies, "We are discussing the standards. We are not bringing politics into this, you are," and asked Spies to restrict his remarks to the standards themselves.

Rep. Jeff Johnson observed that the name Minnesotans Against Proposed Social Studies Standards indicates bias, and suggested that a failing report card from the group is a foregone conclusion.

Rep. Seifert again asked for specifics to add, change, or delete, saying that they need to begin looking at the standards in detail, "the train is leaving the station" with the legislative session beginning next week. Rep. Sykora reiterated this point, saying that report cards and general complaints are well and good, but the committee needs specific solutions to the alleged problems.

Rep. Sykora thanked Spies for appearing before the committee, acknowledging that he had "quite a long ride." I didn't notice how long his "ride" was, but it seemed like he was in the hot seat for at least 20 minutes.