Monday, April 29, 2013

Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst Has a Strange Definition of 'Reformer'

Posted By on Mon, Apr 29, 2013 at 5:00 AM

Unlike most people on the left, I find Michelle Rhee more baffling than irritating. Rhee's whole schtick is that she, as an educational reformer, can see simple solutions for fixing our schools that, thus far, everyone has either been too stupid to see themselves or too afraid of the teachers' unions to implement. Which is fine.

But when this is the public stand you take — i.e., "I know better than all the rest of you dumbasses" — your actions should show that you really do know better than all the rest of us dumbasses. Which means that if you're going to label a politician an education "reformer of the year" on your organization's website, you should probably do some serious vetting to find out what his record really is.

That doesn't seem to have happened with Rhee's Students First PAC. The education-reform lobbying organization now finds itself clapping erasers over a page on its website labeling state Rep. John Ragan "Reformer of the Year."

Wait a minute, you're thinking. Ragan, Ragan ... why does that name ring a bell? Let Scott Wooledge from the Huffington Post refresh your memory:

StudentsFirst, a very prominent and controversial educational political action group named Tennessee House Representative John Ragan as the state's "educational Reformer of the Year" who "stands up for the kids of Tennessee" and "has also been a leading advocate for change."

I guess it's enough that the only kids Ragan supposedly stands up for are the heterosexual kids.

It turns out the honoree is the co-author and introductory sponsor of the latest permutation of the notorious Tennessee "Don't Say Gay" bill. The latest version would have forced select Tennessee school officials to notify parents of children who privately discussed their sexual orientation, essentially dictating forced "outing" of kids, even against their own objections.

Yes, the StudentsFirst endorsement of him actually says, "Rep. John Ragan has consistently voted to do right by kids when it comes to education." Consistently? So this means StudentsFirst is cool with Don't Say Gay?

Well, not exactly, as best I can tell. In all fairness, it appears to me that Ragan was named "Reformer of the Year" last year, before his sponsorship of the bill this session. Note the other info on the page is about when to vote in last November's elections — the second sidebar item is titled "Endorsements."

The other thing that indicates to me that StudentsFirst may have jumped the gun in touting Ragan and maybe thought better of it is that on the "General Election Endorsements" page, Reformer of the Year Ragan is absent.

StudentsFirst vice president of national policy Eric Lerum took to Twitter to explain how the vetting process had failed to catch some of Ragan's more, um, unusual ideas about "doing right by kids." Lerum said, "We're not perfect — we have candidate questionnaires, we vet them. Sometimes we know before, but this came after." And this is true: Ragan did sponsor Don't Say Gay after StudentsFirst decided he was so peachy.

But as Tom Humphrey points out, there were plenty of warning flags about Ragan in the news before Don't Say Gay. Was StudentsFirst cool with his 2011 refusal to vote for a bill that prohibited convicted child abusers from contacting their victims? Or when he told one of his constituents in January 2012 that gay people are disease-ridden and suicide-prone? Were they fine with his attempts to put a religious exemption in an anti-bullying bill last year? Or with his statement in July 2012 that "The Tennessee Equality Project and members of the Anderson County Democratic Party support gay marriage, gay adoption and other policies that I don't agree with"?

It's great that Eric Lerum is bragging about StudentsFirst's advocacy work on behalf of gay students: "We were 1st ntl edreform org to support anti-bullying, to my knowledge. Whole staff did It Gets Better video." But when does it get better? After you give $6,500 to a guy you would have known was anti-gay if you'd only Googled him? After you've held him up as an example of the kind of reform you want to accomplish?

Which brings me back to what I find befuddling about Rhee. If StudentsFirst were actually more of a grassroots PAC, these kinds of missteps would be painful but understandable — you take people at their word and you don't look that hard to discover whether they're hiding some not-so-secret anti-gay agenda, as long as their education bills look okay. But Rhee is promoting herself as the person who can cut through the stupidity and get at the truth about how we should fix things. And StudentsFirst's good name is at stake here.

So endorsing Ragan without knowing his odious opinions isn't just embarrassing. It undermines the central premise for why we should trust Rhee's vision.

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