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Don't Say 'Reformer'

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UPDATED

This week, StudentsFirst apologized for naming Tennessee lawmaker John Ragan one of its reformers of the year in 2012 because the Republican is the primary sponsor of legislation that would require a counselor or other school official who learns that a student has engaged in homosexual activity to report this information to the student's parents.

The measure was quickly lumped in with similar previous Tennessee proposals nicknamed "Don't Say Gay" bills.

In a statement Monday, the group's vice president for legislative affairs Tim Melton said:

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 For example, he supported an overhaul to Tennessee's outdated teacher tenure system, cast an important vote to end arbitrary limits on the number of charter schools in Tennessee, and co-sponsored measures to make it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.

Although Ragan was named a StudentsFirst reformer of the year in 2012, the organization is reacting now because of a piece in the Democratic-leaning Daily Kos from last week.

UPDATE Friday 11:15 a.m. Ragan told the Knoxville News Sentinel on Thursday that he was frustrated by the criticism over his proposed legislation because he had tried at one point to transform it in a way that would have avoided the subject of homosexuality and that he is not anti-gay. But he said his amendment never went anywhere, so it wasn't publicly available. An excerpt from the article:

The rewrite amendment, provided to the News Sentinel by Ragan, seeks to address that problem by declaring that school counselors—unless a licensed psychologists or psychiatrists—"may not engage in counseling on mental health or other conditions or activities outside career and educational counseling."

The bill says there should be a "medical referral" to professionals and notification of "appropriate authorities" in situations where school counselors or other personnel believe a student is "engaging in, or who may be at risk of engaging in, behavior injurious to the physical or mental health and well-being of the student or another person."

It also says that school officials shall "notify parents or legal guardians in the manner specified by law for such a medical referral."

The lawmaker told the newspaper that his version leaves it to professionals to decide what should or should not be relayed to parents, unlike companion legislation in the state senate.

StudentsFirst's Tennessee affiliate said it had no further comment on the entire situation despite learning of Ragan's amended bill.

Salon notes that "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."

An opinion blogger for edweek.org, Peter DeWitt, was unimpressed with the apology by the reform organization founded by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, however, noting that Ragan's bill was not his first anti-gay act. "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," DeWitt said over at the Finding Common Ground blog.

DeWitt notes something I have written about before: The majority of students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender are bullied at school, and many find their school experiences so unbearable or threatening, they actually skip school.

"Unfortunately," DeWitt continued, "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."

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement and Education Week Staff Writer Nirvi Shah on Twitter @NirviShah.

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