(WASHINGTON) — Lawmakers and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona agreed at a Tuesday hearing that students face a host of threats in the nation’s schools — but differed sharply on how to tackle a range of culture war issues.
“We believe that the secretary is not adhering to the intent of Congress under Title IX,” Education and the Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx told ABC News the day before the hearing. “Title IX was intended to make sure that women and girls were treated fairly when it comes to sport in particular.”
And as the hearing got underway, GOP members questioned Cardona about Title IX and transgender policies they suggested left girls vulnerable.
Reps. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, and Jim Banks, R-Ind., grilled Cardona about the department’s recent proposed change to Title IX, which would bar blanketed bans on trans student athletes.
“Would you say it’d be fair for me [at] anytime in this process, high school up until 30 years old, that I had a chance to box or wrestle with your daughter, competing with your daughter?” Owens, a former professional football player and father of five daughters, said.
Cardona responded, “It’s my responsibility and my privilege to make sure that all students have access.”
Banks pressed Cardona on whether he would take away school lunches to kids in need because the school won’t allow boys to participate on girls sports teams.
“Do you support taking away school lunches from kids who go to schools where boys aren’t allowed to play on girls sports teams?” Banks questioned. “The answer is yes, this administration would take away school lunches from kids who need that lunch — maybe the only warm meal they might ever get — because of the radical agenda of this administration.”
Cardona, a father and former principal, said the proposed changes did not touch on the contentious issue of whether schools should allow transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identities rather than biological sex at birth.
“There’s nothing in our proposed title and regulations that determine how bathrooms should be used,” he said.
When Rep. Erin Houchin, R-Ind., asked whether transgender athletes undressing in women’s bathrooms constitutes sexual harassment, Cardona said it was a “concern” but stated his belief that “transgender girls should have access to all the experiences that public schools provide.”
“I believe the harassment and discriminations against transgender students is something that is rampant in this country, and as a department, we are proposing regulations to make sure all students are seen and valued for who they are and given the same opportunities to engage,” Cardona said.
Banks claimed the department’s early 2021 guidance included controversial material regarding race, but that the department deleted some of it.
“I was just hoping you would tell us you backtracked on it because ultimately, you came to the conclusion that it’s inappropriate to teach our kids critical race theory or some of the garbage that “1619 Project” and Ibram X Kendi teach. But apparently, you don’t want to tell us that today,” he said.
Cardona said he wanted to stay away from divisive topics.
The secretary also answered critiques about school closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Rep. Kevin Kiley, R-Calif., pressed Cardona on pandemic-era vaccine mandates and prolonged school closures across the state of California.
“This was the most consequential policy failure in modern U.S. history,” Kiley said.
Some Republicans asked Cardona about FBI investigations into parents who attended school board meetings following an October 2021 memo from Attorney General Merrick Garland denouncing “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”
“Do you support [Garland’s memo] targeting parents who show up at school board meetings to express their concerns?” Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., asked.
Cardona responded, “I believe that they’re well within the right to do what they feel is necessary.”
Democrats highlighted different concerns, arguing students were unsafe in classrooms amid the threat of gun violence. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez made an impassioned plea for the end of school shootings carried out with assault weapons.
“I believe it is heartbreaking and irresponsible that the majority of Republicans refused to take action on an assault weapons ban,” Leger Fernández said.
“It is ridiculous that children have to be afraid of going to school, that their parents have to live in fear every time they drop their children off,” she said.
Cardona asked the lawmakers for $2.2 billion in funding as part of President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2024 Budget Request for the Department of Education.
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