Arne Duncan and the ‘gay high school’

ARNE DUNCAN AND THE ‘GAY HIGH SCHOOL’…. When Arne Duncan’s nomination to head the Department of Education is considered, the most likely political dispute will have nothing to do with testing, merit pay, or charter schools. Instead, we’re probably going to hear a fair amount of complaints about the Social Justice Solidarity High School.

…Duncan’s openness to new ideas caused a stir in Chicago just last month when he proposed a high school designed for gay students. Aimed at keeping students from being bullied and ostracized, Duncan pitched the idea of an explicitly gay-friendly school, where half of the students were expected to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The proposal met with misgivings from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley — traditionally an advocate for gay and lesbian issues — as well as ministers, gay activists and social conservatives opposed to segregating gay students.

As the school board’s Nov. 18 vote approached, designers of the Social Justice Solidarity High School tried to broaden its mission, pitching the campus as a refuge for bullied youths in general and removing references to sexual orientation in the proposal. But they withdrew their proposal at the last minute, pledging to return with another version of the plan in time for an opening in the fall of 2010.

David Brody, a correspondent for TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, argued on his blog yesterday that Duncan has been “pushing for Chicago to start their first gay high school.” Brody added that Obama is “going to get a lot of flack over this pick from social conservative groups” and conservative Republicans in the Senate are likely to “raise a fuss,” because it gives the impression that Obama wants “wild liberals” in his cabinet.

The school in question was not designed exclusively for gay students, but rather, would “cater” to gay students who felt alienated or intimidated at their traditional school. Duncan liked the idea as a way to respond to the growing dropout rate among GLBT students (a study in Chicago in 2003 found that gay students are three times more likely to miss school because they didn’t feel safe).

Now, there are some pertinent details that Brody neglected to mention. For example, the idea for the school was “watered-down considerably after a meeting between Duncan and evangelical ministers,” and school organizers ultimately withdrew from consideration.

Nevertheless, if the right wants to target Eric Holder over the Elian Gonzales story, then it stands to reason that conservatives will be fired up over Duncan’s interest in a high school that offered a welcome environment for students who were made to feel like pariahs elsewhere.

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