If the keynote message chosen for the annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Minneapolis this week is the indicator I think it is, there's no love lost in the nation's state capitols for the 13-year-old federal school reform initiative called No Child Left Behind.
Tuesday's featured speaker was Sir Ken Robinson, a British-born educator and author who has turned his critique of the federal law's standardized testing imperative into a sort of cottage industry. His 2006 TED talk touting more creativity-enhancing educational tactics is deemed the most-watched video in the history of the acclaimed short-talks series.
Modern humans have "created all kinds of issues that we have to think more creatively about. But the problem with education is that we have adopted in many countries in the last 10 or 15 years a policy of standardizing, which is militating against the development of individual talents and general creative capacities," he told the assembled legislators from around the United States and 26 other nations.
No Child Left Behind is well intentioned, but its reliance on standardized testing as the chief agent of reform "removes discretion from the people who actually do the work of education," Robinson said. Testing has become "the purpose rather than the means of school improvement"; teachers "feel deprofessionalized," and the creativity of both students and teachers is stifled.
HIs was the opening general session's second punch at No Child Left Behind. Earlier, former Minnesota House Speaker Martin Olav Sabo was honored as one of NCSL's founders 40 years ago. Sabo said he'd been especially pleased when NCSL leaders "raised a courageous voice" in criticism of the "fundamental overreach" by the federal government that No Child Left Behind represents.
Robinson asserted that educational systems should be judged by how well they promote creativity. If that idea catches on at the state and local levels, I'll look for the academic pendulum to swing back toward the liberal arts and fine arts, disciplines that have lost emphasis under No Child Left Behind.
Legislators galore from around the country have arrived in downtown Minneapolis for this week's annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a Denver-based organization that's been a spur to better state governments for 40 years. Its agenda is chock-full of discussions of both public policy and legislative best practices.
At a general session Tuesday, NCSL will salute one of its founders, former Minnesota House Speaker Martin Olav Sabo. Sabo, now a retired U.S. congressman from Minneapolis, was a leader in the late 1960s and early 1970s of a movement to modernize the nation's legislatures so they could more promptly and effectively address public needs. He was NCSL's third president, in 1976-77.
While Sabo served as speaker from 1971 through 1978, much changed at the Minnesota Legislature. Annual sessions, open meetings, open records, party designation, year-round staffing, a private office for every legislator, a professionally-staffed research division, regular redistricting, the arrival of significant numbers of female legislators and minority-race representation all happened during those years.
One might say that the modern Legislature was invented on Sabo's watch. But in an interview last week, he deflected credit elsewhere, including to the voters of Minnesota, who approved the change to yearly sessions.
Bill Kelly, a former Minnesota House tax committee chair who also served a stint as an NCSL staffer, says Sabo is too modest. He says Sabo brought several crucial ideas to Minnesota from NCSL and one of its predecessor organizations, the National Conference of Legislatures, which Sabo also chaired. One was insisting that House Research be nonpartisan, and therefore credible regardless of which party was in control. Another: giving the House minority the chance to appoint their own members to standing committees, allowing them more opportunity to develop expertise and shape legislation.
Today's Legislature continues to benefit from those changes. But it's been some time since legislators seriously asked the question that Kelly said drove reform 40 years ago: Is state government up to the challenges of modern American life? Two state government shutdowns within the last decade suggest to me that Minnesotans ought to call that question again.
A similar fate befell two largely self-financed candidates in Tuesday's primary. Both Republican Scott Honour, running for governor, and DFLer Matt Entenza, seeking to unseat State Auditor Rebecca Otto, took a drubbing at the polls.
Honour, a Wayzata businessman, finished in fourth place with 20.8 percent of the vote, trailing winner Jeff Johnson, Kurt Zellers and Marty Seifert. Entenza, a former state House DFL leader, scored 19 percent of the vote against Otto, who is seeking a third term. Honour pumped more than $900,000 into his own campaign; pre-primary reports show Entenza giving his campaign fund $674,000.
The two losing candidates "tried to buy the election" in a way that is "somewhat antithetical to Minnesota values," asserted DFL state chair Ken Martin at a morning-after meeting with Capitol reporters Wednesday. Minnesotans prefer grassroots campaigns, of the sort that rely more on phone calls and shoe leather than slick mailings and broadcast ads, Martin said.
The problem with that argument: The governor whose reelection Martin favors won a primary election four years ago in similar self-funded style. Gov. Mark Dayton had already spent $3 million of his own money by primary time.
Recent state political history does not tell a story as simple as the yarn Martin was spinning about Minnesotans' views of candidates who bankroll their own candidacies. Some self-funders have won; some have lost; and in most cases, how their campaigns were financed was probably not the deciding factor in voters' minds.
I'd say Honour lost because, as an out-of-nowhere newcomer, he did not have a political base and his three opponents all did. Entenza lost because he didn't persuade primary voters that Otto's performance as state auditor warranted her replacement.
Martin castigated Entenza for running a negative campaign that "really was about Matt Entenza." It was an unkind shot at a candidate who might have done the DFL a backhanded favor Tuesday. The interest Entenza generated in the state auditor's race contributed much to DFL turnout totals that topped the Republican showing, despite more high-level contests in the ballot's GOP column. Those numbers had some reporters asking GOP leaders whether their party faces an "enthusiasm gap" compared with DFLers this year. Any such gap that revealed itself Tuesday was at least in part of Entenza's making.
The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act bears a strong Minnesota stamp. Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey was the bill’s floor leader who got it over its highest hurdle, a Senate filibuster, exhibiting lawmaking skill that would become the stuff of political science textbooks.
That fact alone brought the 50th anniversary of its enactment, culminating last Wednesday on the date President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law, particular notice in this state. The Humphrey School of Public Affairs did its namesake proud with commemorations including a June 9 appearance by former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton noted that Humphrey “knew the difference between compromising to get something done that will really advance your cause and compromising on the cause itself.” It was that discernment — a product of Humphrey’s schooling in the Minnesota politics of the 1940s and 1950s — that allowed him to recruit and keep his essential ally in defeating the filibuster, GOP Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. Humphrey yielded to Dirksen’s preference for state and local rather than federal enforcement of the new law in order to secure Dirksen’s support.
One cannot look back at the Humphrey-Dirksen partnership of June 1964 and not lament the absence of similar Senate bipartisanship in recent times. Or wish that the legislation that killed Jim Crow laws had more thoroughly eradicated Jim Crow attitudes, habits, and economic patterns in America.
But anniversaries are for inspiration, not lamentation. I found some in the eloquent speech Dirksen gave on the Senate floor the day the filibuster broke, June 10, 1964.
“We dare not temporize with the issue which is before us,” he said. “It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. Its time has come.” It had come because, by the thousands, ordinary Americans had become part of a grassroots movement, calling and marching for change.
Today’s Americans also confront issues that are essentially moral in character — income inequality, immigration, disparities in educational opportunity. The partisan environment may have changed in Washington. But the impetus for change still can and must come from ordinary Americans with a moral compass.
State political party conventions aren't conducted for the benefit of the people in their host arenas. They attempt to convey messages and meaning to the broader electorate -- even if most of those broader electors tune in only briefly.
Belief in that mission inspires journalists to report on these biennial confabs. It's why I felt duty-bound this weekend to spend one day with the Republicans in Rochester and another with the DFLers in Duluth. After more than 35 years of covering state party conventions, I could not imagine skipping either event.
But I had to wonder this year whether the parties share my belief in the purpose of conventions. If they do, why did they schedule their big shows for the same weekend, when each would detract from Minnesotans' focus on the other?
Mine might be the lament of a road-weary journalist. But every contributor of time and treasure to this weekend's not-inexpensive meetings has grounds for complaint, too. They aren't getting their money's worth when Party X's convention must share the news spotlight with Party Y's down the road.
The party officials I consulted blame the primary date shift from September to August four years ago for this weekend's convention collision. Fewer opportune weekends are available now, they said.
But that's not the whole story. There's also reluctance to meet after the filing period, which decides whose names are on the primary ballot. Conventions aim to whittle down that list. This year, the filing period closes on June 3.
Further, legislators don't like meeting while the Legislature is in session and its contentious issues are unresolved. Avoiding Easter, Passover, Mother's Day, Memorial Day and the Fishing Opener also comes into play. So, I fear, does a paucity of good will between the parties.
Holidays won't go away. But all the other excuses used to justify this year's same-weekend schedule deserve reexamination. Political parties are already deemed too insular and inscrutable. Conducting conventions simultaneously only makes that reputation worse.
The moms stood in the House gallery for an hour and more as the debate over medical marijuana proceeded, bearing compelling witness to the point they'd been making all session: This issue is about the very lives of sick children and their families.
They are Minnesota mothers of young children suffering debilitating and potentially fatal forms of epilepsy. They've been at the Capitol all year, so much so that many legislators know not only their names, but their children's. They know how desperate those families are to relieve their children's misery, and how convinced they are that medicinal cannabis -- their preferred name -- can bring that relief.
Maybe because they were there, Friday's debate in the House was unlike any other this session. It was highly personal and emotional as legislators said they empathize with those standing moms and the other sufferers they represented. In turn, they told their own stories about the conditions marijuana or its deviatives might ease. Tearful stories were shared about the helplessness of losing a young wife and mother to breast cancer, the horrors of sickening chemotherapy, the desire of children to ease a father's multiple sclerosis symptoms.
The partisan politics that is the daily norm on the House floor drained away. The vote that sent the bill back to the Senate, and likely to conference committee, was a bipartisan 86-39, with 17 Republicans voting yes and two DFLers voting no.
Citizen lobbying is not rare at the Minnesota statehouse. But this year's dogged persistence of the "marijuana moms" has been extraordinary, and appears to be a game-changer. The opposition of law enforcement and the medical establishment has been enough to stymie medical marijuana bills in previous years. If this year proves different, the sick Minnesotans who will have legal access to marijuana's relief will have these mothers to thank.