WASHINGTON – Policy differences over approaches to K-12 school choice, instructional priorities and student gender came up again and again in wide-ranging discussions at the first hearing Wednesday of the House Education and Workforce Committee of the 118th Congress.
With name “American education in crisis“The hearing also highlighted areas of agreement, including the need to strengthen college and career readiness, increase math and reading scores, and increase parental involvement in children’s education. Discussions on higher education focused on student loan debt, access to job training programs and job needs forces.
Continued conversations from last Congress regarding COVID-19 loss of student learning and how best to improve student achievement, Republicans said schools must make academic progress a priority. Democrats stressed that while academics are the top priority, schools should also focus on providing an inclusive school climate and resources for students’ mental health.
Members of both parties agreed that parental involvement in schools is important to student success, although they differed on specific approaches.
“We all agree that parent and family involvement is an essential part of creating safe, inclusive, and supportive public school environments for all students, and I welcome the opportunity to work with my colleagues across the aisle to improve best practices, evidence-based practices, and family involvement rather than pitting parents against their children’s educators and schools,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore.
Lawmakers and panel members spoke several times about the pros and cons of public and private school choices.
Panelist Virginia Gentles, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Independent Women’s Forum, said research by lawmakers has shown advantages for public school students over private schools.
“There are a lot of myths about school choice,” Gentles said. “I think it’s important for people to realize that what’s being said is often just an argument and not true.”
She asked policymakers to remove barriers to school opportunities and recommended they talk to families who benefit from select programs.
However, Bonamici said research shows that school vouchers do not improve student achievement or undermine the effectiveness of public education.
Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, a panelist and former congressman who served on the House Education Committee, told lawmakers he was proud to see his state charter school pass laws that have strong accountability measures. In Colorado, charter schools are seen as “a constructive, innovative part of public education,” he said.
Asked by California Rep. Kevin Kiley why charter schools have become a partisan issue, Polis said Colorado does not have political differences on the issue. He added that about 15.2% of students who attend public schools attend a public charter school in his state.
But in other places, he said, charter schools can raise concerns about quality, equity and access.
“I think it’s complicated how charter schools affect equity and access,” Polis said. “It depends on the particular charter school. It depends on attendance. It depends on recruitment. And yes, some states and some school districts have better or worse authorization laws.”
During the hearing, Republican lawmakers criticized what they said were efforts in some places to “indoctrinate” students by teaching them about racism and gender.
Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., pressed Polis to answer whether it’s appropriate for a teacher to talk to elementary school students about sexual orientation and gender reassignment. Polis has repeatedly responded that these lessons are not part of the Colorado Education Standards.
Democrats accused the Republican Party of politicizing class for political points.
For example, ranking member Bobby Scott, D-Va., criticized efforts by Republican politicians to ban books, censor curriculum and “punish teachers for accurately telling our nation’s history.”
Scott said Rebuild America’s Education Act, The law of strength in diversityand Fairness Enforcement and Inclusion Act will fulfill the goals, which include helping to finance the modernization of school buildings and the elimination of inequalities in education.
Democrats also condemned the backlash to support LGBTQ students. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said he was disappointed by efforts to spread “confusion and distraction” about support for transgender students.
“Now more than ever, it’s critical for us to stand up and support trans and queer students, not scrutinize them,” Takano said. “We need to support their parents as well. All students deserve to feel safe, comfortable and supported at school so they can focus on their education.”
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said schools should ensure parents are involved in their children’s education and are welcome participants in district activities. But how far that involvement went seemed to be a sore spot.
Committee chairwoman Virginia Foxx, RN.C., said parents were “stonewalled, silenced and intimidated.” She stood up for Bill of Rights of Parents Act which was introduced in the 117th Congress. The legislation — among other things — requires districts to give parents certain safeguards, such as the ability to review their child’s curriculum and obtain a list of books in school libraries.
“It’s time for the education complex to understand that children belong to their parents, not the state,” Foxx said.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., called the Parents Bill of Rights legislation “nothing more than political posturing.” Proposals like this “failed to address the needs of students and staff across the educational spectrum, leaving them ill-equipped and unprepared for the post-pandemic economy,” Wilson said.
Wilson said schools are struggling to deal with learning recovery and an increase in behavior problems while facing critical teacher shortages. She said she plans to introduce a bill that would provide a minimum teacher salary $60,000 to help address the teacher shortage.
Polis asked Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., if he knows of any laws that prevent parents from being involved in schools. He said no, and that schools are actually trying to encourage more involvement.
Omar said she was also unaware of laws prohibiting parental involvement. “I just hope that we put this argument, which is not based on the actual facts of what is happening in our communities, to rest.”