Anti-Gay Tennessee Lawmaker Praised as 'Educational Reformer Of the Year'


Michelle Rhee is no stranger to controversy. Her organization StudentsFirst has made a name for itself by bursting into school districts to implement its educational ideology. Apparently, this includes honoring a legislator who proposed anti-gay legislation as "educational reformer of the year."

This is not the first time Rhee or an organization headed by Rhee has walked into controversy headfirst. All along Rhee's career path there has been a never-ending string of controversy as she has tried to push her educational ideology.

Rhee's organization, StudentsFirst, named Tennessee State Representative John Ragan the state's "educational reformer of the year." On a now deleted webpage the organization called Ragan someone who "stands up for the kids of Tennessee" and "a leading advocate for change."

However Ragan was the co-author and sponsor of HR1332, better known as the second incarnation of the "Don't Say Gay" bill. It would prevent employees of schools from discussing gay and lesbian issues to students in elementary and middle school. In addition to that it would require school employees to inform parents if they are told, or even suspect, that a child may be gay.

Ragan has also voted against a bill that would prevent convicted child abusers from contacting their victims. He also has been accused of watering down an anti-bullying measure designed to prevent anti-gay harassment in school by attempting to exempt "religiously or politically motivated" bullying.

Eric Lerum, Vice President of National Policy at StudentsFirst seemed apologetic when the news broke, sending out several tweets indicating that they may have changed their mind;

But all that proved to be a simple ruse. When pressed on the issue by other news organization, StudentsFirst sent out a press release decrying the bill and removed the webpage were they lauded Ragan. They did not rescind the award however. And why should they? StudentsFirst was the fourth largest donor to Ragan after all and should not they get some return on their investment?

This pattern of acknowledging a problem and continuing to act as though everything is fine despite the massive issue raised has been a hallmark of Rhee's career. Another example of this pattern of behavior comes from the Washington D.C. cheating scandal that occurred under Rhee's term as Chancellor.

In March of 2011, USA Today broke a story about the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus. The school had made remarkable gains in standardized test scores and Rhee hailed the school as a paragon of her educational philosophy, showering the staff with bonuses.

The investigation showed that the school had a much higher erasure rate that showed a consistent pattern of wrong answers being changed to right ones. On the 2009 reading test, one-seventh grade Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student. The DC average was less then 1. Experts claimed that this was clear evidence of teachers altering test sheets in order to cope with the incentive structure that Rhee had implemented, focused around eliminating teacher tenure and linking pay to performance on standardized tests.

The DC inspector general only interviewed 60 people at one school after the scandal broke even though 90 schools had been implicated and declared that cheating had not occurred. They also did not look at one year that had a high rate of wrong-to-write erasures, 2008.

Rhee was enveloped into the scandal earlier in April when a confidential memo surfaced. The 2009 memo warned that cheating was widespread and was written by an outside analyst that had been invited by Rhee to examine the issue, Fay Sanford. The memo was sent to Rhee's top deputy for accountability and can be read here.

The memo states,

"[…]keep this erasure study really close (sic) hold. No more people in the know than necessary until we have more conclusive results. […]Don't make hard copies and leave them around. Much of what we think we know is based on what I consider to be incomplete information. So the picture is not perfectly clear yet, but the possible ramifications are serious."

DC was in the process of attempting to meet federal government year-to-year test gains know as adequate yearly progress (AYP). The memo also states,

"If all 70 schools wind up being compromised AND OSSE wants AYP blood the result could be devastating with regard to our reported gains in 2008."

Rhee told USA Today in a statement that she did not remember getting Sanford's memo. John Merrow the education reporter that uncovered the memo disputes this claim, stating that he has a source that confirms the Rhee discussed the memo in staff meetings.

Rhee has been successful using her hedge fund backed StudentsFirst organization to implement her educational ideology in states. But given her record of stepping into terrible controversies and not addressing the problems her ideas may face one has to wonder what exactly they are signing up for in the future.