Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Greater Injustice: Ignorance or the Atmosphere That Fosters It?

Nothing made me yearn to have my absentee ballot in hand more than New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino’s comments this weekend. In a speech given to Orthodox Jewish leaders in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Paladino expressed his disdain for LGBT teachers and the community in general by saying of schoolchildren, “I don’t want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is a valid and successful option.” As a displaced upstate-New Yorker, I was appalled, but not shocked. Having grown up mere hours away from Paladino’s hometown, I’ve witnessed the same sort of flagrant and brazen attitudes towards LGBT individuals that have probably contributed to validating his opinions. Thus, I’d say Paladino had a much higher likelihood of having been brainwashed by his peers than any child that’s ever had a teacher who happens to be LGBT, but alleviating him of responsibility for his comments and attitude is letting him off the hook, which he doesn’t deserve.

Take, for instance, Kevin Jennings. Jennings became the first member of his family to graduate from college when he received his B.A. magna cum laude in history from Harvard University, where he delivered the Harvard Oration at the 1985 commencement. That year, Jennings began teaching history to high school students for ten years, first in Providence, Rhode Island, then in Concord, Massachusetts, where he became chair of the history department. In 1992 the Edward Calesea Foundation named Jennings one of fifty “Terrific Teachers Making a Difference.” In 1993 he was named a Joseph Klingenstein Fellow at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Jennings is currently the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education, heading the department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, which means he currently holds one of the highest positions of any member of the LGBT community within the federal government. Successful? Check. Gay? Check. And I have yet to hear from any of Jennings’ students from the ten years he taught so magnificently in high school that they had been coerced or brainwashed in any way. Instead, Jennings provided for a decade what so many school districts desperately need in order to turn their schools around; dedicated teachers.

While Paladino has made clear his stance on LGBT people with teaching credentials, he has yet to address what he specifically plans to do with New York’s fledgling schools. So far, Paladino has supported the idea of creating numerous new charter schools. Charter schools, seen as the go-to answer for education reform by many politicians, not just the ones who harbor unfounded phobias against those exhibiting different identities, are expensive and do not take into consideration the ideal of having free quality public education for all students. Families pursuing this option often have to submit to a lottery system with few open spots available for their children to be admitted. Meanwhile, standard public schools are suffering from countless issues only intensified by exactly what Paladino’s plan is giving them; inattention. Paladino has also not outlined how he would fund the opening of the 300 new charters he has proposed, an interesting caveat given his promise to reduce state spending by 20 percent.

Needless to say, the plan needs to be fleshed out. Perhaps Paladino should focus his attention on how he is actually going to provide an answer to the innumerable problems New York’s schools face instead of promoting hatred towards a community that includes Kevin Jennings, a man who is clearly more invested in repairing the education system than the prospective governor. If more emphasis is finally placed on allowing all of our children to flourish as intelligent free-thinkers in schools with adequate resources, here’s hoping it will also eliminate the chance for them to grow into potential state leaders who engage in such retrogressive thought.

This post was written by Eric VanDreason, the newest edition to PFLAG National’s Policy Team. To learn more about Eric and his role at the National Office, please visit our staff page here.

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