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GOP lawmakers turn their attention to antisemitism in K-12 public schools

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Republican lawmakers have grilled the leaders of three school districts over allegations of antisemitism in their schools.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If this sounds familiar, it's because lawmakers previously made headlines for questioning antisemitism on college campuses and questioning university presidents specifically. Now they've turned their attention to K-12 public schools, where they say the issue is unchecked.

FADEL: NPR's Cory Turner joins us now to talk about all this. Hi, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So, what can you tell us about why these districts were called to the hot seat?

TURNER: Yeah, so there was New York City, which is the largest in the U.S., plus Berkeley, Calif., and Montgomery County, Md., which is just north of Washington, D.C. All three have been in the spotlight for students, and in some cases staff, saying or doing things that could be considered antisemitic. From the get-go, though, these district leaders acknowledged these incidents are happening. But they denied that they are unchecked or pervasive.

And, in fact, at one point, David Banks, who heads the New York City schools, actually warned lawmakers of casting aspersions on an entire system. After all, he said, some members of Congress have made antisemitic statements. When Republicans pushed, district leaders pushed back. Here's Republican Kevin Kiley of California accusing the head of Berkeley schools, Enikia Ford Morthel, of ignoring antisemitism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN KILEY: If you're not willing to acknowledge the problem, why can we be confident that it's being adequately addressed?

ENIKIA FORD MORTHEL: You can be confident that I am there at my schools every day in the classrooms. And I'm very clear that there have been incidents of antisemitism, and every single time that we are aware of such an instance, we take action.

FADEL: Now, these played out pretty differently than what we saw with the university presidents when they testified on this issue a few months ago. Several of them ended up resigning not long after. But these school leaders pushed back pretty hard on Republican members, right?

TURNER: Yeah. And I don't think Republicans scored any clear political points here. These school leaders were actually at times combative. The most heated exchange came with David Banks - again, the New York City chancellor. He got grilled about his handling of a student protest in November at a high school called Hillcrest. Students there targeted a teacher who had declared her support for Israel after the October 7 attacks. Banks said he found the episode frightening, that he had removed the school's principal. At one point Republican Elise Stefanik of New York thought she had caught Banks in a lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELISE STEFANIK: You said you fired the principal. And it turns out the former principal of Hillcrest...

DAVID BANKS: I never said I fired the principal.

STEFANIK: You did. A member - you can check the testimony. Ms. McClain asked, you fired her? You said, yes.

BANKS: Fired the principal of who?

STEFANIK: Hillcrest.

BANKS: I never said I fired the principal of - you check the record.

TURNER: And it went on from there. In fact, Banks said he had moved the principal to another job not running a school. When lawmakers demanded to know why the principal had not been fired, Banks shot back that staff are entitled to due process.

FADEL: And what did Democrats say throughout the hearing?

TURNER: Well, they repeatedly questioned Republicans' political motives for the hearing. Here's Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUZANNE BONAMICI: 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.

TURNER: Bonamici went on to list several other things Trump has said or done that could be considered antisemitic and even took a moment to invite her Republican colleagues to disavow those comments, and there was silence.

FADEL: NPR Cory Turner. Thank you, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.