Sandra Peterson and Minnesota priorities

This column originally was published by ECM Publishers, Inc via, 10-28-2015

Sandra Peterson and Minnesota Priorities

by Joe Nathan

Sandra Peterson was a rare, remarkable woman, who deserves more attention.

Peterson’s colleague, Sen. Ann Rest, of New Hope, told a TV reporter, “Minnesota’s children are better off because of the life of Sandy Peterson.” (Watch the report at

She was a farm girl from West Central Minnesota who became a teacher, teacher union president and state legislator, as well as wife, mother and grandmother. She had a huge impact on Minnesota. Peterson died on Oct. 24.

Peterson taught 1970-1987 in the Robbinsdale Area Schools district. She worked with kindergarten students and students with special needs, at two elementary schools and at Armstrong High School, according to an email from Latisha Gray, marketing and communications program director for Robbinsdale Area Schools.

Sandra Peterson (Photo courtesy of Education Minnesota)

Sandra Peterson (Photo courtesy of Education Minnesota)

Information provided by Chris Williams at the teachers union Education Minnesota states Peterson ran for Minnesota Federation of Teachers secretary in 1985 and was elected as that teachers union’s first full-time president in 1987. The Education Minnesota information includes a statement from Peterson that sounds very much like the education leader I’ve known over 30 years: “I love teaching; I was fortunate to teach almost every grade level from K to 12. And the love of the profession is what has driven me through the years as a union leader.”

Peterson was passionate and sometimes controversial. She concluded, for many reasons, that a merger of the unions Minnesota Federation of Teachers and Minnesota Education Association was a good idea. Some of her members disagreed, but she and then MEA President Judy Schaubach concurred. So, ultimately, did most teachers.

This cooperative merger meant that MEA and MFT stopped spending money challenging each other as to who would represent teachers. More time and money was devoted to what teachers wanted the Minnesota Legislature to do. Minnesota public school teachers have more power and influence because of these two women.

Peterson was one of the first state leaders in Minnesota to urge greater investment in early childhood programs. She rightly recognized that well-designed early childhood programs could have a strong, positive, long-lasting impact.

Peterson and I sometimes disagreed. When the Postsecondary Enrollment Options law was passed in 1985, the MFT filed a lawsuit, believing the law was unconstitutional. MFT felt it was unacceptable to allow public funds to support high school students taking courses on campuses affiliated with religious institutions. Minnesota courts ruled this was OK, since the law prohibited students from taking sectarian courses. In conversations over the years, I found that Peterson concluded that PSEO was on balance, a good thing.

I don’t know that she changed her mind about chartering. She and MFT strongly opposed allowing organizations other than local school boards to approve these new public schools. Some of us pointed out that school boards already could do this and that some teachers and families were frustrated with districts that turned down good ideas. This situation helped convince legislators to adopt the nation’s first charter law.

But Peterson was open-minded and gracious. I never encountered the bitterness or disdain from her that some PSEO and charter opponents displayed. She was willing to listen, as well as to advocate. I remember frank conversations with her that often started, “Now, Joe, have you considered …?”

She was open to new ideas. That led her to run, successfully, for the state Legislature. She won four elections for the Minnesota House of Representatives, retiring in 2012 because of health challenges.

Peterson kept going when she retired from the Legislature, both personally and professionally. Her daughter-in-law, Jeannine Peterson, told me that the week before she died, Peterson delivered a hockey bag to one of her grandchildren and attended a board meeting of the Children’s Museum.

Sandra Peterson was a positive, honorable leader. She died the same weekend as a much-beloved Minnesota basketball coach and player, Flip Saunders. There was a lot of press coverage about Saunders. There was some for Peterson. I mean no disrespect to Saunders. But I believe that Peterson had a greater impact on Minnesota’s youngsters and Minnesota’s future.

Sen. Rest is right. Minnesota’s children are better off because of Sandra Peterson.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at