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Republicans and K-12 school leaders clash over handling of antisemitism

David Banks, chancellor of New York City Public Schools, testified at a House Education Committee hearing on antisemitism on Wednesday. He was joined by Karla Silvestre, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education in Maryland, Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the ACLU, and Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District in California.
Jacquelyn Martin
/
AP
David Banks, chancellor of New York City Public Schools, testified at a House Education Committee hearing on antisemitism on Wednesday. He was joined by Karla Silvestre, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education in Maryland, Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the ACLU, and Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District in California.

On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers expanded their fight over antisemitism in education, with mixed results.

Members of the House Education Committee questioned leaders from three K-12 public school districts over the handling of recent incidents that some lawmakers say have left Jewish students feeling unwelcome and unsafe.

Republicans, who control the House and called the hearing, were clearly hoping for the kind of headline moments they've scored in similar hearings with elite college presidents. In one of those hearings, presidents struggled to answer questions about antisemitism. Another hearing, focused on Columbia University, helped spark a wave of protests on campuses around the country.

But Wednesday's testimony offered few surprises in comparison, as the K-12 school leaders held their ground in answering Republican questions.

All three education leaders – from New York City Public Schools, Berkeley Unified School District in California, and Montgomery County Public Schools in a Maryland, suburb of Washington, D.C. – represent districts that lean politically liberal.

As on many college campuses, all three have also seen real tension between students, parents and staff over how to talk about Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel's retaliatory incursion into Gaza. That includes isolated examples in each school system of students and, in some cases, staff saying and doing things that could be considered antisemitic.

The hearing began with a lightning round of yes-or-no questions about the killing of Israelis by Hamas on Oct. 7. Then Republican lawmakers turned their attention to David Banks, chancellor of New York City Public Schools, the largest school district in the country.

Republican Lisa McClain of Michigan asked Banks whether drawing swastikas and the statements "Death to Israel" and "Kill the Jews" were antisemitic, and the chancellor was unwavering in his answers, saying they were.

New York City got the toughest grilling, much of it around the district's handling of a November protest at a high school in which students targeted a teacher who had declared her support for Israel on social media. Banks said multiple students were suspended and the school's principal was removed.

Over and over, Republican lawmakers called for accountability and for teachers and staff who are involved in or enabled antisemitic incidents in schools to be fired. At one point, in a slip of the tongue, a lawmaker asked if any students had been fired; another asked, perhaps thinking he was still in a higher ed hearing, if any professors had been fired.

In maybe the most heated exchange of the hearing, Republican Elise Stefanik of New York appeared to think she had caught Banks in a lie, claiming he had said that he'd fired the principal of that New York City high school. In fact, he'd said the principal was "removed" and "moved," meaning reassigned to another role.

Ultimately, Banks tried to make the point that teachers and staff are entitled to due process.

For their part, Democrats used the hearing to question their Republican colleagues' political motives.

In her opening statement, Democrat Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon said, "Many of my colleagues claim to care about the rise of antisemitism in this country, but when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., with burning torches and chanting, 'Jews will not replace us,' the president at the time, Donald Trump, said there were very fine people on both sides."

Bonamici went on to list a number of things Trump has said or done that could be considered antisemitic. She invited the Republicans at the hearing to disavow those statements by Trump. None did.

Throughout the hearing, Banks and the other educators repeatedly returned to what they considered one of the most important challenges they face right now: developing effective classroom lessons to help teach students to reject antisemitism and hate of any kind.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Nicole Cohen is an education editor at NPR. Prior to joining the Education Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Arts Desk, where she produced and edited arts features and interviews for NPR.org. She was part of the team that created NPR's annual Book Concierge, a collection of the year's best books as chosen by NPR staff and critics. Her other arts features include This Is Color and the podcast recommendation site Earbud.fm. She also coordinated the Web presence for Fresh Air.