New lawmaker putting passion for education to work at Capitol

Burnsville’s Myhra lands key assignments, sponsors bill to grade Minnesota schools

by John Gessner
Volume 31, No. 52, Thisweek Burnsville-Eagan

Pam Myhra still marvels at the galvanizing power of education.

As a struggling elementary student whose first language was Spanish, Myhra found life-changing success in fifth grade, thanks to a special reading program and a cherished teacher.

As a parent she vowed to home-school her children when they were young, but found it so rewarding she finished the job. Now all three home-school graduates are top college performers.

So Myhra, Burnsville’s new state representative in District 40A, was naturally thrilled when she landed requested seats on the House Education Finance and Education Reform committees.

High-quality education isn’t all about the money, said the 53-year-old Burnsville Republican, who also serves on the taxes and capital investment committees. There isn’t much to dole out anyway, with Minnesota facing a $6.2 billion deficit.

“To be quite honest, education really was not the issue in the campaign at all,” said Myhra, who unseated former DFL Rep. Will Morgan by four percentage points in last November’s election, which put her party in charge of both houses of the Legislature. “It was jobs and people not wanting to be taxed anymore because they’re having problems with their own budget.”

But Myhra is hoping to nudge school performance with her first chief-authored bill: a measure to grade individual schools’ annual performance on an “A” through “F” scale and use financial incentives to reward top performers.

“Educational failure is cruel,” said Myhra, who recently toured her alma mater, Burnsville High School, where she graduated in 1975. “I speak from experience.”

Her parents were missionaries who ran a boys’ orphanage in Bolivia, where her father also planted churches.

After the family returned to Minnesota, elementary school was a “nightmare,” said Myhra, whose primary language was Spanish.

She had little success until fifth grade at the old Park Elementary School in Bloomington, where Myhra was put in a class built around SRA Reading.

“I entered fifth grade with nil reading skills,” Myhra said. “I had a phenomenal teacher that year who literally changed my life. I gained five years of education that year and never looked back.”

That rookie teacher was let go after that year when the program was discontinued, Myhra said. By comparison, her more experienced fourth-grade teacher had demanded little of her and encouraged her to get answers from other students, Myhra said.

“I believe that teacher evaluation is so important,” she said. “If I had to give out a number, I’d say that above 90 percent of our teachers are fabulous.”

She found the keys to success with her own children, who are now “highest honors” students at Northwestern College in Roseville.

Myhra said her grading plan for Minnesota schools comes from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, based in Florida, where grading has been part of a turnaround in student achievement, including among minority and low-achieving students.

Myhra has added her name as co-author to numerous bills, including one that would streamline the flow of reporting and record-keeping between home-school families and their local school superintendents.

Other bills she’s signed onto include an alternative teacher licensure proposal that would provide two-year licenses for eligible applicants; a bill requiring new teachers to pass a basic-skills test; a measure requiring photo ID to vote; measures that would limit funding for abortions in state-sponsored health programs and authorize “Choose Life” license plates with proceeds going to agencies that support adoption; and a $9 million bonding bill for the Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit project.

Editor’s note: Look for a profile next week on Burnsville’s freshman senator, Dan Hall, who represents District 40.

John Gessner is at burnsville.thisweek@ecm-inc.com.