Chapter 1 The Edison Controversy

The Edison controversy started innocently enough during my first successful campaign for the school board in 1995. A few years earlier, the Minnesota state legislature had pioneered yet another new idea, "charter schools." For all the criticism of Minnesota’s legislature it is famous for innovating new ideas which are frequently borrowed by other states. My first recollection of this phenomenon goes back to my college days when "no fault insurance," "no fault divorce," and the "Minnesota Miracle" were the latest new ideas. I wrote a report on the latter which earned me an A- in my State and Local Government class for Mr. Pockrass. It was about school finance. How about that for a harbinger of things to come?

The State has toiled for years to tweak public education and improve it. Before charter schools, Governor Perpich pushed "open enrollment" which allowed students to attend schools in other districts. The unions hated this. It has been justly criticized for the non-educational use athletes sometimes put it to when they open enroll to play on more competitive teams in other schools. Perpich had been a member of the Hibbing School Board and this may account for his particular interest in public education. His educational policies eventually cost him the endorsement of the Minnesota Education Association, the principal teacher's union, which subsequently endorsed his Republican challenger Arne Carlson. Carlson went on to be an even bigger thorn in the side of the teacher's unions.

Charter schools were an attempt to free some schools from bureaucracy and red tape. That sounded good to me and when the News Tribune asked if I would be willing to support a charter school I said "yes" as did every other candidate running in 1995.

Just one year earlier the School Board had thwarted two independent groups who had asked it to sponsor a charter. This hesitance was about to change under the ambitious new Superintendent Mark Myles. Shortly after I was sworn in we sent out a national request for charter proposals. Edison eventually got the nod. From the outset the union made it clear that although they thought the Edison model had merit they didn’t want it unless they could control it. They never got that opportunity.

Edison’s independence from the union led inexorably to the war to close it down which is still being waged to this day. The union’s criticism was tentative at first because Edison was introduced like gangbusters sparking lots of interest and enthusiasm. Ironically, I was the most reluctant member of the Board to support Edison because I anticipated the ill will its creation would generate. What kept me in Edison’s corner was my deep conviction that too many kids were slipping through the cracks. In my unsuccessful 1991 school board campaign I wrote a "Dropout Report" which exposed the fraudulent graduation figures our district was then advertising. To my chagrin the administration of that era denied my claims and I lost the primary election. Now, four years later, I was on the School Board. After three unsuccessful campaigns I was not about to back down on any idea which might bring success to desperate kids no matter how much the union protested.

The Edison controversy caused a rift between Superintendent, Mark Myles, and the teacher’s union. The Superintendent’s promotion of Edison led to charges that he was criticizing Duluth’s teachers. While Edison opened with a flourish the union leaders quietly smoldered. Eventually, the DFT’s (Duluth Federation of Teachers) concerns would be taken up and amplified by the public employee’s union, AFSCME. The later union has been waging a long standing fight to keep private contractors from taking over municipal and other governmental services. As the 1997 elections loomed a confederacy of interests would join together and support one another. The engine behind the election was AFSCME, whose President, Al Netland, was also the President of the local AFL-CIO. AFSCME also had a political organizer, Eric Peterson, on its payroll. Eric would pen dozens of letters critical of Edison and appear on numerous television shows as a "concerned citizen" to lambaste it.