How Public School Leaders Upstaged Republicans and the Ivy League

The House of Representatives is one of Washington’s most raucous forums, a free-for-all of personalities with profiles to raise and points to score.

But it turns out that the rough-and-tumble of steering a public school district — board sessions, P.T.A. meetings, battles over textbooks and discipline — may be sound preparation for the rough-and-tumble of testifying before the House. As public school leaders showed on Wednesday, mixing it up a bit can go far toward neutralizing a Congress with a craving for the spotlight.

Wednesday’s hearing was the latest in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s effort to scrutinize antisemitism on campuses and, along the way, castigate academic leaders. At earlier hearings, university presidents opted for strategies of conciliatory genuflection or drab, lawyerly answers. Both approaches largely backfired, stirring outrage on those presidents’ campuses and often beyond.

Both approaches were largely discarded on Wednesday.

“This convening, for too many people across America in education, feels like the ultimate gotcha moment,” David C. Banks, the New York City schools chancellor, said toward the hearing’s end. “It doesn’t sound like people who are actually trying to solve for something that I believe we should be doing everything we can to solve for.”

By then during the two-hour, Republican-led proceeding, Mr. Banks had seemingly put his law degree to use. He had pointedly debunked some claims: “We have found no evidence that that actually happened.” He acerbically dismissed a lawmaker’s pronouncement: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” And he suggested that maybe Congress was not always as pure as proclaimed: “We’ve had members of Congress who have made antisemitic statements.”

Down the witness table, Enikia Ford Morthel, the schools superintendent in Berkeley, Calif., corrected a congressman from her home state, seemed unbothered by the members’ pressure to discuss personnel matters in a way that would defy California law on employee confidentiality, and all but diagramed a rambling question about discipline she said had left her “confused.”

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