Michelle Rhee’s group stands by anti-gay honoree

StudentsFirst declines to rescind award to John Ragan, fudges timeline of events and deletes laudatory blog post

Topics: Michelle Rhee, Charter schools, John Ragan, studentsfirst, ,

Michelle Rhee's group stands by anti-gay honoree (Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In response to a recent report that Michelle Rhee’s controversial nonprofit StudentsFirst named anti-gay Tennessee state Rep. John Ragan “reformer of the year,” the group is standing by him — responding with dubious claims about his record and scrubbing its website of a blog post hailing him for always voting “to do right by kids when it comes to education.”

Salon wrote on Monday that, per a report by Scott Wooledge at Daily Kos, despite receiving the award from StudentsFirst, Ragan has a notorious (and searchable) track record of legislation that specifically targets queer students for harassment by teachers, school counselors and their peers. He was the co-sponsor of the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a measure that would have banned teachers from discussing sexuality that is not “related to natural human reproduction” in the classroom — and would have forced educators and school therapists to “out” students they suspected of being gay to parents or guardians.

Asked by Salon why it would choose to honor such a lawmaker, StudentsFirst said Monday that it was not aware of Ragan’s anti-gay voting record at the time that it named him reformer of the year. According to StudentsFirst regional press secretary Calvin Harris, the organization honored Ragan in August 2012, but a report in the Knoxville News Sentinel from July 2012 indicates that Ragan had already been stirring local controversy by trying to exempt “religiously or politically motivated” bullying from a measure to prevent anti-gay harassment in schools.

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In a statement to Salon, StudentsFirst claims that the Ragan endorsement happened “more than a year ago” (despite earlier saying it occurred in August of 2012) and declines to respond to the July report about Ragan’s efforts on the bullying measure. Instead, it refers to another effort Ragan has been linked to, and suggests that his involvement in any anti-gay legislation occurred long after the award:

However, a bill [Ragan] introduced this year, HB 1332, is an ill-conceived, harmful piece of legislation that would have represented a backward step for Tennessee schools and kids. StudentsFirst did not at any time support HB 1332 and will not support any similar legislation, whether in Tennessee or any other state. Thankfully, members of the Tennessee legislature agreed, and did not allow the bill to move forward.

The statement goes on to say that StudentsFirst stands “strongly opposed to policies, statements, or actions that could create an unsafe or unwelcoming environment for any student in any school” and the organization remains “committed to that and to working with parents, teachers, and administrators to ensure every student has a great teacher, parents have access to great schools, and that policymakers are making effective use of public dollars.”

Despite being made aware of the aforementioned timeline of events, StudentsFirst has refused to rescind the honor it gave Ragan, though it has since removed a link from its website encouraging supporters to donate to him.

As previously noted, StudentsFirst provided a 2012 endorsement to Georgia state Sen. Chip Rogers, an anti-immigrant Republican who introduced a 2004 bill to bar the children of undocumented immigrants from attending public school, as another “reformer of the year.” The organization boasts an endorsement list that is nearly 90 percent Republican, many of whom are on the record with anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT and anti-choice views.

Here’s the group’s full statement:

More than a year ago, StudentsFirst endorsed and highlighted Representative John Ragan in Tennessee because of his support of several education policies for which we advocate. For example, he supported an overhaul to Tennessee’s outdated teacher tenure system, cast an important vote to end arbitrary limits on the number of charter schools in Tennessee, and co-sponsored measures to make it easier for experienced professionals in science and math to enter the classroom.

However, a bill he introduced this year, HB 1332, is an ill-conceived, harmful piece of legislation that would have represented a backward step for Tennessee schools and kids. StudentsFirst did not at any time support HB 1332 and will not support any similar legislation, whether in Tennessee or any other state. Thankfully, members of the Tennessee legislature agreed, and did not allow the bill to move forward.

When it comes to this kind of legislation, StudentsFirst is clear that we stand strongly opposed to policies, statements, or actions that could create an unsafe or unwelcoming environment for any student in any school. In Tennessee and elsewhere, we remain committed to that and to working with parents, teachers, and administrators to ensure every student has a great teacher, parents have access to great schools, and that policymakers are making effective use of public dollars.

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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