Once again, Michelle Rhee demonstrates she has no understanding of the politics of the nation or compassion for LGBT teachers and students. Last week her organization StudentsFirst named John Ragan, a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives as the state's 'Educational Reformer of the Year.' In doing so StudentsFirst talked about Ragan as someone who "stands up for the kids of Tennessee and has been a leading advocate for change".
What they neglected to mention was that Ragan co-authored a bill in Tennessee that in essence would have forced school officials to notify parents of children who privately discussed their sexual orientation with them. Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee said:
It's inexcusable to make counseling professionals out LGBT or questioning young people to family members, when all too many parents physically abuse their LGBT children, force them into quack 'reparative therapy' programs, or kick them out of their homes. This disgraceful bill pays lip service to student safety, but in reality it puts vulnerable young people at terrible risk.
For many who worked with Rhee in the District of Columbia, the honor her organization gave Ragan appears to be a continuation of her lack of understanding or interest in the needs of LGBT students and teachers that she displayed when Chancellor of the D.C. schools. When Rhee was first named Chancellor by Mayor Fenty, I attended a meeting of the Stein Democratic Club, the Gay and Lesbian Democratic political organization in D.C., which Rhee was invited to address. She arrived knowing who the organization's members were and was questioned whether making schools safe for LGBT parents, teachers and students was a priority for her. She was specifically asked if she would bring this subject up when talking to teachers and administrators in her inaugural address to them. She said it was not one of her priorities at the time as there was so much else she needed to talk to them about there wouldn't be time for this. Everyone at the meeting was flabbergasted by her response. She went on to say a number of other things that indicated that she had little respect for any of the people in the system which proved true throughout her tenure.
Rhee then endorsed the school voucher program foisted on the District by Republicans in Congress. A program which sent tax dollars, over 50 percent of the money from those vouchers, to parochial schools that were able to and did discriminate against LGBT parents, students and teachers.
In his recent column on the Huffington Post Scott Wooledge wrote about the StudentsFirst selection of Ragan and said that when asked about the Ragan honor Eric Lerum, a VP of National Policy at StudentsFirst indicated that the organization was unaware of Ragan's anti-gay history and that they wouldn't have endorsed him had they known. Many consider that explanation too little and too late.
Wooledge went on to say "how easy it would have been for StudentsFirst to find out about Ragan and the bills he introduced and supported before they honored him. He said, "Do a little more legwork and you'll find that in January 2013 the American Civil Liberties Union forcibly condemned HB 1332's Senate companion bill, SB234 calling it a "harsher version of Tennessee 'Don't Say Gay' bill." The House and Senate versions appear to be identical and StudentsFirst might have found that Ragan was a supporter of yet another anti-gay education bill, an effort to affirm Christian Evangelical's rights to harass LGBT kids as protected First Amendment speech, known as a "license to bully" bill".
StudentsFirst under the direction of its founder Michelle Rhee appears to be a Republican-leaning organization and Rhee herself has worked for and advised Republican Governors including Florida Governor Rick Scott. She has taken strong anti-union stands and has appeared to often care more about promoting herself than promoting students. She has done little but attack administrators and teachers who struggle every day to improve our schools and provide the best possible education to our children. During her early tenure in D.C. she replaced a huge number of principals but by the end of last year over 60 percent of her new hires had left. We continue to hear that Rhee's rhetoric and claims about her successes in the D.C. school system vastly out-distanced her actual accomplishments.
The time has come for those who want to continue to work to improve schools across the nation to move on from Michelle Rhee. While she had an impact on education reform and helped to bring it to public attention, at this time the controversies surrounding her clearly indicate she is not the right person to be a leader if we are to continue any kind of successful education reform movement.