Cassellius is ‘fresh air’ to education

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

ECM Capitol Reporter

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has a copy of a photo from the old Minneapolis Star in her office showing a young girl peddling flowers on the streets of Minneapolis.

“That’s me,” said Cassellius, glancing at the copy.

The first person of color to lead the Department of Education, Cassellius grew up in public housing in Minneapolis.

Long hours peddling flowers earned some money. But there were also food stamps. And homelessness.

Cassellius’ mother, who never graduated from high school, was 16-years-old when she gave birth to her first daughter and only few years older when her daughter Brenda was born.

“I grew up poor, but I never felt a poverty of love,” Cassellius once wrote.

Although her father and mother at times were separated, her father remained a presence in his daughter’s life. And he instilled the belief that cycles of poverty can be broken.

“You know, Peanuts,” Cassellius remembers her father saying to her. “You can be anything you want to be. You might have to work harder at it, but you can be anything you want to be – and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t be,” he said.

Something sunk in.

Former House K-12 Finance Committee Chairwoman Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said Cassellius’ first appearance at the State Capitol was like a breath of fresh air.

The word about Cassellius from a lawmaker who knew her was that Cassellius spoke passionately about education — something Greiling likes to hear.

But Greiling views Cassellius receding into the background, and she cited several possible reasons why.

To those unaccustomed to politics, the State Capitol can be shock, Greiling explained. She hopes the commissioner, if she’s been troubled by the politics, finds her “sea legs.”

Beyond this, Dayton’s approach to negotiating is that he — not a commissioner — makes the final decision, Greiling explained.

If Cassellius feels a need for wariness because the Senate has not yet acted on her confirmation, Greiling suggests the commissioner shrug it off.

It’s unlikely, given Cassellius’ background, the Senate would reject her confirmation, Greiling said.

“She should just follow her heart, and not worry about the Republicans,” Greiling said.

For the full story, see the Thursday, Sept. 6 print edition of the Times.