House Republicans and Democrats traded barbs Wednesday over parental involvement in schools and curriculums, a hot-button topic that has become one of the leading fronts in the culture wars.
During the year’s first House Education and Workforce Committee hearing, titled “American Education in Crisis,” Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said one of her “top priorities” is “to protect parental rights,” with other lawmakers saying a parental rights in education bill will likely go through the chamber this year.
“Extending education freedom to more students will also be one of my top priorities, as it has been since I came to Congress, and I am pleased to see more parents taking their child’s education into their own hands since the pandemic,” Foxx said.
Democrats sought to make clear that no lawmakers think parents should not be involved in their children’s education.
“I just hope that we put this argument that is not based on the actual facts … to rest,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said after GOP-called witnesses said there was a wedge being driven between parents and schools.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. on Jan. 25, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
LGBTQ topics and critical race theory in schools also proved to be sources of tension.
“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 towards an exclusion of LGBTQ students and students with disabilities,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.).
One of the witnesses called by Republicans, Virginia Gentles, director of the Education Freedom Center at the Independent Women’s Forum, and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) went head-to-head when he asked her about African American, Latino and queer history in school.
Although Gentles said she supports African American and Latino history, she did not directly answer a question about queer studies, saying some materials could be inappropriate for young children.
Bowman pressed Gentles on if she “had a number of schools that are so-called implementing” what she and other conservatives called “a woke indoctrination.”
When she did not offer such a count, he blasted her for “generalized statements about schools this, parents that, teachers this, but you cannot tell me a number right now of schools that are implementing this sort of curriculum.”
Later, Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) clashed with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D), Democrats’ sole witness at the hearing, about an incident Miller cited in his state in which a school talked to a child about gender transitioning supposedly without the parents’ knowledge.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Nov. 1, 2022, at the governor’s mansion in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Polis responded by saying such moves are not in the state curriculum and that schools should be focused on teaching students reading and math regardless of their identity.
“So you think it is appropriate? You haven’t answered the question yet. I want to know is it appropriate for adults to talk to an 8-year-old about sex and gender without parents’ knowledge?” Miller asked.
Polis responded, “I don’t know the incident you’re referring to, but obviously I have a third grader and a fifth grader, and their classmates know that they have two dads and, you know, it’s never been a problem. And obviously if parents want to have discussions with other kids about what they think or don’t think about having two dads, they are welcome to.”
Republicans sought to keep focus on school choice and charter schools, while Democrats pushed into school lunches, gun violence and mental health services.
At one point, Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.) asked for advice from Polis on how to bring the two parties together on the issue of charter schools, saying it is like “running into a brick wall” with Democrats on charter schools while commending Polis for his own work on the issue.
There was some bipartisan ground to be found on issues such as lowering the cost of college, learning loss from the pandemic, and work-based education programs and apprenticeships.
–Updated on Feb. 13 at 5:46 a.m.