U.S. House GOP preps for debates on ‘parents rights,’ school vouchers and transgender athletes
People gathered outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion in Austin on March 13, 2022, to protest Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to investigate families of transgender children. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)
WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans laid the groundwork for some top legislative priorities during a Wednesday hearing that examined public funding for charter schools and voucher programs, as well as increasing parents’ oversight of school curriculum.
The Republican chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee, North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, provided a forum for a discussion of legislation that would prioritize tax incentives for private or alternative schooling over public schools, allow parental access to public school curriculum and bar many transgender athletes from competing in school sports.
Public education has become a major cause for the GOP, mainly in Republican-controlled state legislatures and at local school board meetings at which conservatives target books, often with themes or characters centering on LGBTQ individuals or people of color. The results have been the banning of thousands of books as well as a culture war over school curriculum that centers on diversity, gender identity and inclusion.
Now with Republicans in control of the U.S. House, the battle has made its way to the federal stage, though progress may be difficult for the GOP given a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Democratic president. Education policy also has traditionally largely remained in the hands of states and local school bodies.
Foxx said that she intends to champion a bill that GOP Rep. Julia Letlow of Louisiana, a member of the committee, introduced in the prior Congress, known as the Parents Bill of Rights Act. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri also introduced a Senate version of the bill, which boosts the so-called parents’ rights movement pushed by conservatives.
Letlow’s bill, which garnered 116 Republican co-sponsors, has several broad provisions, such as a requirement that schools provide parents with a list of books in the schools’ libraries and give parents the right to meet with their child’s teacher at least twice a year.
The measure specifies that parents are allowed to review curriculum and instructional materials.
“It is time for the education complex to understand that children belong to their parents, not the state,” Foxx said in her opening statement.
‘Educational gag orders’
Democrats pushed back, arguing that Republicans were not addressing the real issues in education such as low teacher pay and school shootings.
They criticized Republicans for instead focusing on advancing and passing “educational gag orders” — a term used by ranking member Bobby Scott of Virginia — such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, book bans and restrictions on how educators can teach topics related to race and gender.
“Many of these attacks have been launched under the guise of transparency and expanding parents’ rights,” Scott said in his opening statement. “While parental engagement is critical for a student’s success, the bills introduced have been crafted to give a vocal minority the power to impose personal beliefs over all students.”
Scott, the top Democrat on the committee, said that in his state, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin set up an emergency hotline for people to call about the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public schools.
“That dedicated phone line was shut down since there were no complaints about CRT being taught in elementary or secondary schools,” Scott said. “That’s maybe because it’s only taught in a few law schools.”
The spotlight on public education has increased since 2020, when schools were shut down by the pandemic and parents and educators fought over mask mandates when schools reopened.
Targeting education is a strategy that worked for Youngkin in 2021, when he campaigned on his opposition to critical race theory, though it did not prove as successful for Republican candidates across the country in 2022.
Youngkin also aired strong objections to schools’ use of the late novelist Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Beloved,” a story about a former slave who runs away and is haunted by the ghosts of her past.
One of the Republican witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing, Virginia Gentles of the Independent Women’s Forum, said she supported several Republican-led education bills such as Letlow’s and also the Education Choice for Children’s Act, which the late Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana introduced in the previous Congress. The bill would create a tax credit for individuals or corporations donating to scholarship-granting organizations that provide private school vouchers to students.
“Students must be allowed to escape the residentially assigned public schools that are not effectively educating them,” Gentles said.
In a House Oversight hearing last year, Gentles argued that parents should be allowed to not send their children to public school, and should be provided with vouchers to send their children to private institutions that have a curriculum with which they agree.
Gentles is the director of the Education Freedom Center at IWF, a right-wing public policy group that is financially backed by the Koch brothers, who are billionaires that fund conservative movements.
School vouchers in general allow taxpayer money to be used by parents to help pay tuition for private education. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run and divert money away from public schools.
Democratic Rep. Suzanne Marie Bonamici of Oregon said the solution to addressing problems in America’s education system is not “to funnel taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools and for-profit charter schools,” because it undermines the effectiveness of public schools and education.
“A real crisis in American education is that many of my colleagues, in Congress and in state legislatures, are applying a divisive strategy rooted in discrimination toward and exclusion of LGBTQ students and students with disabilities, trying to censor and silence content that does not fit their political ideology and agenda, defunding public schools and failing to address gun violence,” Bonamici said.
She asked the witness tapped by Democrats, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, about how his state’s public schools were working with parents to involve them in their children’s education while also supporting the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ students.
Polis said that a critical part of a school system’s success is how much it includes parents.
“I’ve seen school leaders do (an) inventory of skills of parents and find ways that parents can supplement and provide additional learning opportunities for kids at the classroom level, making sure that parents are partners and know what their students assign for homework,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida pushed for support of her legislation, which would establish a minimum salary for teachers of $60,000, arguing that “low teacher pay is one of the many factors contributing to teacher shortages across the nation.”
And Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia said that the five-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is next week, and said the committee needed to address the epidemic of school shootings.
Gentles also brought up her support of a bill introduced in the last Congress by Republican Rep. Greg Steube of Florida titled The Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act. According to a summary, it would “make it a violation of federal law for a recipient of federal funds who operates, sponsors, or facilitates athletic programs or activities to permit a person whose sex is male to participate in an athletic program or activity that is designated for women or girls.”
It says that for purposes of the bill, “sex shall be recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”
Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana asked Polis if he thought boys and girls should be competing with each other.
Polis said that his 8-year-old daughter plays baseball on a coed team that is about 90% boys and 10% girls, and he said that “she’s every bit as competitive as them.” He added that if he was not running the state of Colorado, he would be the baseball coach of her Little League team.
“Pretty soon your 8-year-old will be 15 to 16, and I wonder how you’ll feel at that point,” Banks said.
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