Public school heads show up as university heads in anti-Semitism inquiry

The House of Representatives is one of Washington’s hottest forums, featuring free profiles and scoring profiles for all personalities.

But the rough and tumble of leading a public school district — board sessions, PTA meetings, battles over textbooks and discipline — may be the best preparation for the rough and tumble of testifying before the House. As public school leaders showed Wednesday, mixing it up a little can go a long way toward neutralizing an attention-grabbing Congress.

Wednesday’s hearing is the latest in an effort by the House Committee on Education and Labor to investigate bigotry on campuses and vilify education leaders. In previous hearings, university leaders opted for strategies of conciliatory geniality or dull, lawyerly responses. Both approaches have largely backfired, sparking outrage within those presidents’ campuses and often beyond.

Both approaches were largely rejected on Wednesday.

“For many in education across America, this meeting feels like a final moment,” said New York City Schools Chancellor David C. Banks said at the end of the hearing. “It doesn’t sound like people who are actually trying to solve something, and I believe we should do everything we can to solve it.”

By then, during a two-hour operation led by the Republican Party, Mr. Banks seems to have put his law degree to good use. He categorically denied some of the claims: “We have no evidence that it actually happened.” He angrily dismissed what one lawmaker said: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” He suggested that Congress may not always be as pure as it is proclaimed: “We have members of Congress who have made anti-Semitic statements.”

Down on the witness stand, Berkeley, Calif., school superintendent Enikia Ford Morthell corrected a congressman from her home state, unfazed by pressure from members to discuss personnel matters in violation of California’s law on personnel confidentiality. She said everything left her “confused” except for a vexing question about morality.

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The tactics represent a sharp departure from the norm on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers typically frown during made-for-television hearings.

There are exceptions. Last year, Senator Markwayne Mullin, Republican of Oklahoma, called on the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to “stand your knee up.” Union leader Sean O’Brien returned the same dare. Sen. Bernie Sanders, 82, raps his butt and avoids adding direct confrontations to Senate hearings.

But in two House Education Committee hearings, university leaders asked Congress, or at least stoically. Wednesday’s hearing is the first time witnesses have consistently challenged their interrogators during this particular trial.

Christopher Armstrong, an attorney with Holland & Knight who represents clients through congressional hearings and oversight hearings, said he generally does not encourage litigating before Congress.

“I can’t imagine a situation where this would help you,” he said, though he acknowledged that Wednesday’s hearing might have demonstrated such a scenario.

In fact, Mr. Banks told the New Yorker after the hearing that he was very happy. Like other leaders testifying with him, he was tested by fierce debates in unforgiving conditions. For him, Capitol Hill is another.

“The complexity of New York City prepares you for moments like this,” he said, surrounded by New York faith leaders who traveled with him to Washington. “I think some university leaders don’t have the benefit of this kind of study, if you will.”

That may be true. But local school superintendents also have different mandates from the presidents of large universities. Observers rarely command national profiles, and their most important audiences are practically in their backyards. Leaders of universities like Columbia and Harvard must contend with sprawling networks that include bold faculty members, wealthy donors, powerful trustees, and uncommitted students.

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“It’s a much tougher balancing act than being the principal of the New York City public school system,” Mr. Armstrong said, Mr. He felt that Banks’ method would be inappropriate for a college president.

Local school leaders had other advantages. Americans are deeply accustomed to a national soundtrack of frustration with public education, noted Ira Stoll, former managing editor of the Harvard-based Journal of Education Policy. But they have shown a limited appetite for federal oversight of the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.

The primary and secondary education system is largely locally controlled and locally funded. Although the federal government oversees civil rights complaints in schools, it’s usually handled through an investigative process by the Department of Education — not Congress.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and groups like Moms for Liberty have also demonstrated that public schools can be ripe for political battle. But Republicans in Congress, eager to regain control of the December investigation that helped precipitate the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, have a subtle strategy to attack higher education as a bastion from the outside. Touch the elite.

“There was a book called “Harvard hates America,”” said Bill Kristall, a prominent conservative author, referring to conservative exposés of the elitist and liberal indoctrination exhibited at Harvard since the 1970s. “There was no book called ‘Fairfax County Public Schools Hate America.’

Lawmakers didn’t always help themselves on Wednesday. They often wandered off during the five-minute allotted time for questions, keeping proceedings unfocused as witnesses waited out the clock.

The Republicans managed some winning moments. Under questioning from Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, Ms. Ford Morthell admitted that parts of a Berkeley course on the Israel-Hamas war appeared to downplay the impact of the conflict on Israelis.

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Rep. Kevin Kile, Republican of California, proved eloquent when he fielded questions about the district’s ethnic studies curriculum.

Mrs. Ford Morthell acknowledged that his district is working with a group called Liberated Ethnic Studies, which offers model curriculum materials that are highly critical of Israel — a subject that must be taught in defiance of California guidelines.

Overall, though, “I thought the questions weren’t sharp,” said Lori Lowenthal Marcus, legal director of the Deborah Project, which has sued several California school districts, including Berkeley, over Israel. “I thought people who were witnesses could walk away.”

Florida Republican Representative Aaron Bean, who chaired the hearing, declared it “a great meeting” with “an open and honest conversation.”

“Our intentions are to shed light on the fact that this is actually happening,” he said of anti-Semitic statements in schools. “A lot of people say it’s not happening.”

Republicans will have another chance to make their case on May 23, when the presidents of three universities — Northwestern, Rutgers and the University of California, Los Angeles — are expected on Capitol Hill.

Whether Republicans can realize their ambitions may depend on which playbook those leaders use.

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