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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Michelle Rhee Doesn’t Put All Students First

By Peter DeWitt — April 30, 2013 3 min read
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A 2011 Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study says, “The majority of LGBT students are faced with many obstacles in school affecting their academic performance and personal well-being. Results indicated that 8 out of 10 LGBT students (81.9%) experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, three fifths (63.5%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and nearly a third (29.8%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns."(Kosciw)

In addition to GLSEN’s research we know that LGBT students are at risk of suicide. We have heard countless stories about students who died by suicide after being suspected of being gay. Some of these students were, bullied at school, disowned by their families and kicked out of their homes.

Considering GLSEN’s research and the stories of children dying unnecessarily at a young age, it came as a surprise that Michelle Rhee named someone who doesn’t believe that LGBT students have a place in schools, as their Educational Reformer of the Year. That someone is Tennessee House Representative John Ragan. Ragan is the co-author of the Classroom Protection Act, which is better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. Is that really putting students first?

Eric Lerum, the Vice President of National Policy for StudentsFirst, Tweeted that they named him Education Reformer of the Year in early 2012 before his introduction of the bill, which recently failed for a second time. However, Ragan has been introducing and supporting anti-gay legislation, as well as voting against protecting victims of child abuse, since he was elected in 2010.

Don’t Say Gay?
The Classroom Protection Act was co-authored by Ragan and Stacey Campfield. The bill, if it had passed, would “prohibit teachers from discussing any sexuality except heterosexuality in grades K-8” (Bennett-Smith. 2013). This would have been discriminatory and nearly impossible considering there are gay parents with children in elementary and middle schools. There are also young people who are grappling with being gay at a young age and they need the support and guidance of their teachers, counselors and administrators.

To make matters worse, Ragan’s bill would have gone a step further than just not allowing teachers to talk about LGBT issues. The bill would require teachers to tell the parents of a student who is suspected of being gay. Considering the inner-struggle that these students already experience from coming to terms with being gay, this bill would have had devastating consequences.

Besides the Don’t Say Gay Bill, Ragan also had some other questionable choices. “Ragan in April 2011 was the only member of the House who voted against the bill that also was unanimously approved in the Senate. The legislation, signed into law, prohibits any person convicted of child abuse from contacting the victim, including by electronic means.” Yes, he voted against that.

Despite Lerum’s Twitter defense that they gave Ragan the honor long before the Don’t Say Gay Bill, Ragan’s vote against protecting victims of child abuse came in April of 2011. He was also an outspoken advocate of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) Policy. Both of these came long before StudentsFirst named him Educational Reformer of the Year. Is it an oversight once again that they supported a representative who voted against protecting victims of child abuse?

Rhee-wind the Decision?
On his Twitter page, Eric Lerum Tweeted, “We wouldn’t have endorsed had we known.” Meaning that they would not have endorsed him if they knew Ragan had anti-gay views. He also Tweeted that most of the staff did an “It Gets Better” video. That was a pathetic attempt at saying they really like gay people. If Ragan’s bill passed it would not have gotten better for countless LGBT students.

Rhee and StudentsFirst have no defense. The damage is done.

If StudentsFirst did know that Ragan was behind the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill than this just partners them with other anti-gay groups, regardless of whether they did an It Gets Better video or not. It seems odd that StudentsFirst would miss Don’t Say Gay, DADT and Ragan’s vote against protecting victims of child abuse.

If they really didn’t know that he had anti-gay opinions, then they did really bad research or had really bad researchers. Unfortunately, Rhee and her staff at StudentsFirst are so focused on making the public school system look bad that they only focused on the fact that Ragan supported a ban on capping the number of charter schools in Tennessee and that he supported using high stakes test scores to evaluate teachers and administrators.

If Rhee really wants to put students first, she has a lot of work to do.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.