Tim Pawlenty's tenure as governor of Minnesota was largely devoid of the kind of polarizing episodes that give campaign managers migraines. If anything, the knock on the GOP presidential contender seems to be that, with a few exceptions, he's a little too ordinary. One of those exceptions came in 2003, when the newly elected Republican governor selected Cheri Yecke, a little-known Bush administration veteran, to produce new educational standards for what students should—and shouldn't—learn.
The battle that followed put Pawlenty at the center of a culture war conflagration. Members of Yecke's handpicked standards committees dismissed sharing and cooperation as "socialist" ideas, suggested replacing "We Shall Overcome" with "Dixie" in a unit on protest songs, and advocated downplaying the impact of slavery on the nation's antebellum economy—lest it sour students on the virtues of the free market.
The resulting outcry was a major factor in Yecke's removal from office by the Democratic-controlled state Senate, and handed Pawlenty one of his biggest political defeats.
As Pawlenty's education commissioner, Yecke's main job was to produce new standards in core subject areas, which could be used to track student performance under the just-passed No Child Left Behind Act. "We need to regain the edge that we have lost as an education innovator," Pawlenty explained at the time. "Dr. Yecke is precisely the right person to lead that change."
In the meetings, conservatives successfully argued that sharing was an inappropriate concept for kindergartners because of its creeping "socialist" implications.
Pawlenty's pick got off to a rocky start. For one thing, No Child Left Behind faced significant opposition among teachers' unions, which viewed Yecke's proposals as an affront. Yecke, who came to Minnesota from the federal Department of Education, was viewed by opponents as too close to the Bush administration. But the opposition ramped up when Yecke convened a committee to study US and world history standards.
Sara Evans and Lisa Norling, both history professors at the University of Minnesota, were dismayed by the process from the beginning. They began attending committee meetings, which were open to the public, and taking notes on the proceedings. What they heard stunned them.
Yecke formed a committee of educators, parents, politicians, and businessmen, and set them to work drafting the standards. But as Evans and Norling later explained in an article (PDF) they wrote for the Organization of American Historians' newsletter, the meetings seemed overrun by conservative activists, some of whom did not reveal their affiliations. One member, identified simply as a parent and former teacher, was on the board of directors of the conservative Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank that's been described—by a supporter—as a "training ground for a lifetime campaign in the trenches of political warfare." (Christine O'Donnell and Andrew Breitbart are both alums.) Private religious academies and homeschoolers were well-represented, even though the standards would have no impact on their curricula.
The resulting circus put Minnesota on the front lines of the culture wars. In the meetings, conservatives successfully argued that sharing was an inappropriate concept for kindergartners because of its creeping "socialist" implications. "In response to another critique noting the absence of organized labor from both the US History and the Economics standards," Evans and Norling noted, "a different committee member sputtered, 'unions! Don't even go there!'"