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Why a Florida lawmaker thinks Common Core tests will make kids gay

Children play under a rainbow flag at the Manila Gay Pride March in the Phillippines.
Children play under a rainbow flag at the Manila Gay Pride March in the Phillippines.
Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images News
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

A Florida state lawmaker argued that new Common Core tests have a more sinister goal: to "attract every one of your children to be as homosexual as they possibly can."

"I really hate to bring you that news," Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Republican, added at an anti-Common Core event in March.

To be clear: There is nothing in the Common Core state standards about being gay. Nor are students going to be tested on where they rank on the Kinsey scale of sexual attraction.

But how Van Zant came to believe this — a story that starts with Florida changing its testing system, takes a detour into a rumor far more interesting than reality, and ends with the argument that the Common Core will turn kids gay — is a tour through the origin of a conspiracy theory.

  1. The Common Core state standards are a list of what students should know and know how to do in reading and math each year. Along with the standards themselves, states are adopting new standardized tests to evaluate what students have learned.
  2. Florida was once part of a group of states working together to create Common Core assessments. But as the Common Core got more controversial, Florida dropped out of the state consortium and decided its students wouldn't take the shared test after all.
  3. Instead, Florida's education commissioner picked the American Institutes for Research to develop its new standardized tests.
  4. The American Institutes for Research uses scientific and social science research to measure the impact of policy change. It's analyzed everything from factors contributing to rising college costs to the effect of sentencing changes in Indiana. It's also working on Common Core assessments for Utah, as well as developing technology for another Common Core test that many states will use.
  5. It's hard to imagine a group less likely to end up at the center of a red-meat conspiracy theory. Even by nonprofit standards, AIR's work is pretty unexciting — it focuses on data and analysis and can seem impenetrably boring.
  6. One of the many other topics AIR researches is at-risk kids, including LGBT youth. Its experts have written guidelines for how schools can support LBGT students. Among them: promote "healthy peer connections," "enforce nondiscrimination policies," and provide appropriate training for staff members.
  7. This is a very small portion of the work AIR does. Fewer than 10 reports, toolkits and other resources deal with LGBT youth, of the hundreds of projects the nonprofit has worked on. It's also separate from AIR's work on assessments.
  8. One AIR researcher who studies social development recently wrote A Guide for Understanding, Supporting, and Affirming LGBTQI2-S Children, Youth, and Families. The guide, produced as part of a contract with the Department for Health and Human Services, provides an overview of the coming out process and suggests ways that teachers, social workers and others can support young people who are LGBT, questioning, intersex, or two-spirit, a Native American term for an alternate gender identity.
  9. Van Zant — as well as Common Core critics in Utah in 2012, who made the same accusations about AIR — misinterpreted the nonprofit's advice on supporting LGBT youth as gay advocacy, or even as encouraging children to become lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Van Zant and other critics conflated a project from a few AIR researchers with the entire organization, including its unrelated work on standardized testing. That's how the criticism that AIR wants to make students "as homosexual as they possibly can" came about — and how a nonpartisan nonprofit ended up at the center of a conspiracy theory.

Van Zant, though, then added another layer. He seized on the term "two-spirit," a term some Native American groups have long used to describe people who are neither male nor female, but have traits from both genders.

Two-spirits were respected in many Native American societies, wrote Walter Williams, an anthropology professor at the University of Southern California, for The Guardian in 2010:

This alternative gender status offers a range of possibilities, from slightly effeminate males or masculine females, to androgynous or transgender persons, to those who completely cross-dress and act as the other gender. The emphasis of Native Americans is not to force every person into one box, but to allow for the reality of diversity in gender and sexual identities.
Van Zant drew a connection between the Native American term and an unrelated Biblical reference to double-mindedness. The New Testament's Book of James uses the phrase "double-minded" to refer to someone who can't decide between God and the world and who is inconsistent in his or her faith. "A double-minded man," according to the Bible, "is unstable in all his ways."

"The Bible says a lot about being double-minded," Van Zant said. "These people that will now receive $220 million from the state of Florida, unless this is stopped, will promote double-mindedness in state education."

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