To the substantial plurality of Michiganders who feel no strong allegiance to either party, this Democratic exception to GOP rule seems innocuous enough. But to partisan Republicans, it is an insufferable insult — a pea under the mattress of their party's hegemony over state government.
Never mind that the board of education's role is mostly advisory, and that its Democratic majority seems little more, at times, than the ideological counterweight to well-financed movement of Republican activists who would like to outsource Michigan's public education system to for-profit charter school operators.
To the many GOP legislators indebted to the generosity of that movement's dark-money bankrollers, the state board remains a prize worth fighting for, and in recent months their efforts to disrupt the board's history of Democratic control have acquired an increasingly desperate sense of urgency.
First, came the Legislature's party-line vote to abolish straight-ticket voting, an option Michigan voters opted to resurrect after a previous GOP eradication effort. Republicans believe, with some reason, that the straight-ticket option gives Democrats an advantage in down-ticket contests (like the ones for the SBE and the three popularly elected university boards) in which many voters choose not to participate.
Then, last week, state Rep.Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Twp., and 30 of his GOP colleagues proposed a state constitutional amendment to eliminate the SBE outright and make the state Superintendent of Public Instruction a gubernatorial appointee. Because it would require two-thirds support in both the House and the Senate, Kelly's proposed amendment is unlikely to appear on the state election ballot any time soon.
But Republicans hoping to discredit the SBE appear to have focused their energy on a coordinated, national campaign savaging the guidelines a board-appointed panel has proposed to protect the safety and well-being of LGBTQ students.
Right-wing columnists and bloggers have characterized the guidelines as a furtive attempt by the board's Democratic president, John Austin, to confer "special privileges" on the 8.4% of Michigan students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. (Why Austin, who is seeking re-election in November, would be anxious to curry favor with a minority that consists overwhelmingly of persons too young to vote is not clear.)
But e-mail traffic Austin released Wednesday (pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request by Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller blog) supports Austin's assertion that the LGBTQ guidelines emerged organically after Rick Joseph, a Birmingham social studies teacher named Michigan's 2015 Teacher of the Year, suggested that schools were hungry for advice on how to protect LGBTQ students.
Late last year, state Superintendent Brian Whiston appointed a work group that included teachers, administrators, parents, psychologists, social workers and school board members. After surveying best practices at school districts around the state, the work group proposed a set of guidelines for discussion at the board's March meeting.
The guidelines — which the board of education has neither the authority nor the inclination to impose on individual school districts — are largely designed to protect the privacy of a group of students that is statistically more likely than the overall student population to feel threatened at school and nearly five times as likely to attempt suicide. The work group's most controversial recommendations (although they elicit scant objections from teachers, administrators and students on the ground) include the suggestion that schools permit students to use restrooms reserved for whichever gender they identify with, and that schools disclose a student's gender identification to parents only with the student's permission.
In sum, the recommendations are an attempt to surface the policies many of the state's best schools have already adopted, and they have aroused little opposition in the first 10 days after they were first proposed for public discussion at the board's March 8 meeting.
According to the e-mail traffic released pursuant to the Daily Caller's FOIA request, SBE member Eileen Weiser, one of two Republicans on the eight-person board, first objected to the guidelines' inclusion on the board's March 8 agenda the afternoon before the meeting. Within the week, bloggers supporting the state and national movement to abolish federal Common Core standards had sounded the alarm, and in April some Michigan residents began receiving robocalls warning of the SBE's plan to foment male voyeurism in women's restrooms. (Like the massive voter fraud cited by sponsors of legislation to restrict voting rights, the restroom voyeurism epidemic seems to flourish only in the overheated imagination of GOP critics.)
In an angry e-mail exchange released by Austin, he and Weiser spar over Austin's allegation that Weiser has worked to "sabotage" the guidelines and that her husband, former state GOP chair Ron Weiser, has pressured Republican legislators to publicly attack the working group's recommendations. Weiser retorted that she found Austin's allegations "offensive" and asserted that, "Apparently, the guidelines were capable of provoking their own national coverage."
(As of press time, Weiser had not responded to my e-mail seeking further comment on the suspicions Austin voiced in his e-mails to her and other board members.)
For the record, I don't think Weiser, House Speaker Kevin Cotter, or most of the other Republican legislators who've denounced the LGBTQ guidelines suffer from homophobia themselves. They're merely exploiting the crudest fears of the Republican base in an effort to discredit a state board of education that opposes the GOP's grander designs for public schools.
What's at work here is not so much bigotry as cynicism — the Trump-like demonization of a vulnerable group of kids Republican policy-makers know pose no threat to their fellow students..
It's only politics, folks — but it's the kind that prompts educators who are genuinely concerned about the well-being of all their students to turn away in despair and disgust.
Contact Brian Dickerson: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Detroit Free Press