Today the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions begins its confirmation hearing for Arne Duncan, the President-Elect's nominee for Secretary of Education. Duncan will certainly face questions about his approach to school accountability standards, merit pay for teachers, and charter schools. Since Duncanís nomination in mid-December, however, social conservatives have been calling for Republican Senators to grill him on another aspect of his leadership of the Chicago Public School system: the proposal, shelved earlier this fall, to launch an LGBT-friendly charter school in Chicago called the School for Social Justice Pride Campus.
Duncan's support for this proposal, an effort to provide a safe haven for any student suffering due to bias and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, is a heartening sign that we may soon have a Secretary of Education who actually gets it. Anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment are pervasive in our schools, and these kinds of behavior have a negative effect on studentsí academic achievement and educational aspirations as well as their health, safety and wellbeing.
From GLSENís perspective, separate schools are only stop gap measures, as it is essential that all schools serve all students equally and effectively, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. However, the Chicago proposal was a genuine, proactive effort to address a pressing problem in our schools. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has a slightly different take. He characterized Duncan's support for the school as "pushing a radical proposal" that was indicative of his "poor judgment."
Here's hoping that Duncan responds to any questions Senators may pose about the plan today with the same level-headed response he gave when the proposal was originally introduced. "If you look at national studies, you see gay and lesbian students with high dropout rates...Studies show they are disproportionately homeless," Duncan said. "I think there is a niche there we need to fill."
Here's hoping that Senators take a different tack with their questions, highlighting the positive steps that Duncan could take as Secretary of Education to better coordinate various federal agenciesí responses to bullying and harassment, or to champion the effort to bring effective anti-harassment policies to every school in the nation, or to ensure that the National Center for Education Statistics begins to collect complete and accurate data on the scope and impact of bullying and harassment nationwide. There are so many crucial measures Duncan could take if confirmed.
Duncan seems to understand that the pervasive anti-LGBT harassment and bias that students encounter in- and outside of school is an unacceptable barrier to learning and academic achievement. It is in all of our interests to sweep this barrier aside. It is crucial that this issue not be transformed into a divisive sound bite, but rather be given the thoughtful consideration it deserves as part of a holistic approach to improving our schools.
Dr. Eliza Byard
GLSEN Executive Director