Why Students should Study David Durenberger

The following column was first published in several APG of East Central Mn newspapers, including but not limited to the Morrison County RecordStillwater Gazette, and other papers during February, 2023


Why students should study Sen. David Durenberger

There are few, if any, Minnesota politicians who deserve more careful study by young people than the remarkable, complex, productive U.S. Sen. David Durenberger.

Durenberger, who died recently at age 88, accomplished more that had a positive impact on youngsters than almost any other Minnesota politician in the last 50 years. He also made mistakes that should be understood and avoided.

Let’s start with Durenberger’s relentless advocacy for giving students opportunities to help others as part of their class work. We hear a lot about how youngsters need more counselors and social workers. Some students will benefit from these professionals.

Durenberger also understood that helping others could provide huge benefits to young people. Longtime youth advocate and former executive director of the National Youth Leadership Council, Jim Kielsmeier, recently told me: “Durenberger was absolutely crucial as the lead Republican in passing the National and Community Service Act. This legislation provided substantial dollars in Minnesota and other states for service earning and AmeriCorps.”

Durenberger didn’t just talk about working with others with whom he sometimes disagreed. He did it constantly. He actively searched for new ideas that he thought would be helpful. One was his collaboration with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and President Bill Clinton to establish a federal “startup fund” for charter public schools. Durenberger was a strong supporter of public education. In a September 2020 interview conducted by former Minnesota state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, Durenberger explained: “I like the public school system. I think it’s a critical part of the country.”

Durenberger also thought that students, families, educators and the large system would benefit if there were opportunities to create new non-sectarian public schools, open to all. Former Durenberger aide Jon Schroeder told me that since the federal charter public school startup fund was established in the early 1980s, more than $150 million has come to Minnesota to help establish these schools, and $5 billion helped start charters throughout the country.

Reichgott Junge represented the Robbinsdale area and was the Minnesota Senate’s lead author of the nation’s first charter legislation. She told me: “There probably wouldn’t be many charter public schools in Minnesota or around the country, if not for Sen. Durenberger.” As noted above, Junge interviewed Durenberger and Schroeder about their work. The interview is available on a free national online library website, here. The interview has many details not just about chartering but also about other bipartisan work that Durenberger did.


Durenberger also had a huge impact on education for youngsters with some form of disability. Again, Durenberger was a lead Republican author, working with Senate Democrats on federal legislation expanding opportunities for these students. The law hasn’t been funded as much as was promised. However, Durenberger fought not only for the rights created in the law but also for funding to support it.

Durenberger was a lifelong learner and advocate, even into his late 80s. People working to clean the Mississippi River, improve medical care, and provide parks and permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness have spoken about his enthusiastic assistance, even in his last months.J

I saw this displayed last October when I attended a small birthday party with Durenberger. I brought along 21-year-old Jose Perez, a young man with dyslexia who explained how a charter public school had helped him develop his talents after he failed in traditional schools. Perez told me, “I was inspired by how interested he was in my story.”


Sen Durenberger & Jose Perez

Durenberger was human and made mistakes. After serving in the U.S. Senate from 1979 to 1995, he was censured by senators for some financial misrepresentations. He acknowledged his errors, pleaded guilty, returned funds, didn’t run for reelection and served a year on probation.

David Durenberger was a listener, learner and practical visionary. Shirley Erstad, former director of Friends of the Parks and Trails, wrote: “He was a public servant every moment of every day that I knew him. … His spark and love for Minnesota and country grew throughout his lifetime, instead of diminishing.”

Durenberger helped create an array of programs that live on, helping us live better lives. I hope many Minnesota students will study his life.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: Joe@centerforschoolchange.org.