A recent decision by the Texas state school board to withdraw from a national education group highlights how debate over issues involving gay students is reaching all levels of education policymaking.
In a 10-5 party-line vote Nov. 18, the elected Republican-controlled board dropped the state’s membership in the National Association of State Boards of Education, or NASBE. The decision was prompted in part because one of the Texas board members said the group had run a conference that included discussions of policies at odds with the board majority’s views on how to address bullying of students because of their sexual orientation.
“I disagreed with the whole framework of discussion,” Terri Leo, the board member who recommended that the state pull out of NASBE, said last week in describing the October symposium. She said some speakers had advocated policies prohibiting the bullying of particular groups of students, including gays and lesbians, not just overall bans on mistreatment of fellow students.
“They’re pushing for hate-crimes-type legislation through bullying policy,” said Ms. Leo, who believes that such an approach unfairly establishes special protections for gay students.
The fact that her fellow Republicans all supported her motion to leave the national group, while all the board’s Democrats opposed it, is an “indication of the partisan direction that NASBE is going,” Ms. Leo said in a telephone interview.
But Brenda L. Welburn, NASBE’s executive director, said the Alexandria, Va.-based group doesn’t have a partisan agenda, and its board of directors includes politically conservative members from states such as Colorado and Kansas.
“We are open to everyone,” Ms. Welburn said. “We work very hard to keep the organization one where all viewpoints are expressed.”
While the Texas decision has not led other states to leave NASBE, it shows how the so-called culture wars—particularly on issues surrounding sexual orientation—present problems that are hard for school officials at all levels to negotiate.
National groups—just like local school officials—can be blindsided by criticism even when they believe they are being fair to all sides, said Charles C. Haynes, the senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va.-based foundation.
“National organizations want to be a big tent on these issues,” said Mr. Haynes, who works closely with school officials in trying to bridge cultural divides. “Sometimes it surprises people to find out that what they’re doing in a well-meaning way translates to conservative and religious people into taking sides.”
How to address the bullying of students who are gay or perceived to be has been a divisive issue in recent years in places as different as West Virginia and Washington state. In both those states, religious conservatives contended that bullying policies that specifically identify gay students as needing protection are efforts to promote what they often term “homosexual lifestyles.” (“Bullying Policies Slow to Reach Schools,” Dec. 11, 2002.)
Advocates for gay students argue that policies specifying groups of students that may be particularly likely targets of bullies are most effective. If bullies don’t get a direct message that homosexuals need to be respected, it becomes “open season” on gay and lesbian students, said Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, known as GLSEN.
At the Oct. 12-13 symposium in Phoenix sponsored by NASBE, Ms. Leo said, speakers argued that bullying policies should specify homosexuals as students who need to be protected from harassment and suggested that those who bully gay students should receive more-serious punishments than those who bully other students.
“Bullying is wrong, period,” Ms. Leo said. “All victims should be dealt with the same—compassionately—and all bullies should be treated equally.”
Efforts to single out gay students for protection give them special status that is unfair to other victims of the taunts and violence of bullies, she said.
“Most people have a huge problem with public schools’ imposing the homosexual agenda,” said Ms. Leo, who represents the Houston area on the Texas board.
Ms. Welburn of NASBE and Mavis B. Knight, a Democratic member of the Texas board who attended the Phoenix gathering, said that the discussion of bullying based on sexual orientation was a small part of the NASBE symposium, which took place during the preconference portion of NASBE’s annual meeting.
“There wasn’t a protracted discussion about it,” Ms. Welburn said. “It was just: Yes, we should protect all children.”
“I did not feel that that segment of the program [concerning gay students] overshadowed any of the other information we received … about how unacceptable bullying behavior is,” said Ms. Knight, who represents Dallas and parts of Fort Worth on the Texas board. “There was not a mandate from anyone that you had to do this.”
The event was financed through a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under which NASBE writes reports and runs conferences on issues related to school health, Ms. Welburn said. The agenda included officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC, several researchers, and policymakers who oversee statewide bullying policies.
While NASBE officials may consider the content of the meeting innocuous, Mr. Haynes of the First Amendment Center said, people who consider homosexuality wrong for religious reasons believe policies that protect gay students are “promoting a position on homosexuality and exclude their views on homosexuality.”
But all sides can agree on the basic tenets of wiping out bullying in trying to create safe schools, he said.
“There’s got to be discussion on how we can address issues we can agree on,” he said.
A Financial Factor
While Ms. Leo said she disagreed with the material on bullying presented at the NASBE conference, she added that other factors contributed to the Texas school board’s decision to quit the group. She said she and other GOP board members felt that many of the group’s publications didn’t reflect the views of conservatives, and that a 2004 NASBE symposium on sex education gave short shrift to promoting abstinence.
In addition, she said, the $40,000 the state board spent on its annual dues could be better used. In voting to leave NASBE, the state board reallocated dues money to individual members’ travel budgets.
Ms. Welburn said Texas’ dues are less than 2 percent of the group’s $2.4 million annual budget. She said she would balance next year’s budget by cutting back on overhead costs and leaving a vacant administrative position unfilled.
In recent years, NASBE’s membership has held steady at about 40 states, Ms. Welburn said. Some states leave the organization, mostly for financial reasons, but return when their budgets improve, she added.
“I have every confidence that Texas will come back,” she said.