WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans on Tuesday grilled the secretary of education about student debt cancellation and protections for transgender student athletes during a lengthy hearing on the president’s proposed budget request for the Department of Education.
While the subject of the five-hour House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing was the fiscal 2024 budget proposed by Secretary Miguel Cardona, Republicans zeroed in on cultural issues that also have preoccupied state lawmakers, including trans athletes and instruction in diversity in K-12 public schools.
They also criticized the Department of Education for extending the pause on student loan repayments due to the coronavirus pandemic, a policy initially put in place by President Donald Trump.
“We want answers,” the committee’s chair, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, said in her opening statement. “We want answers for parents left in the dark, children put a generation behind, women athletes being discriminated against, and the American taxpayer left with the bill. That should be the starting point for any budget discussion.”
Democrats focused on the recently passed House GOP bill that temporarily raises the nation’s borrowing limit but also cuts spending and imposes additional work rules on safety net programs. Democrats said it would harm the Department of Education’s budget and ability to serve students.
Cardona laid out President Joe Biden’s budget request that Cardona said focuses on providing resources for students who are low income, have disabilities, are unhoused or come from communities of color. Congress appropriates funding, but the request serves as a blueprint for administration priorities.
The administration would increase funding for Pell Grants, provide tuition-free community college, increase preschool grants, address the shortage of mental health professionals on school grounds and attempt to improve teacher retention, among other initiatives.
“The proposal shores up funding to help underserved schools close achievement gaps and sustain programs that are helping students recover from the pandemic,” ranking member Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, said in his opening statement. “These investments will be transformational for our education system.”
The budget request would represent a $10.8 billion increase in discretionary funding from the previous year’s levels.
“As an educator and a father, I know that nothing unites America’s families more than the hopes we share for our children, and that is why the Biden-Harris administration is pushing for bold investments to ensure all students have equitable access to schools, colleges, and educators that welcome and support them, inspire their love of learning, and prepare them to succeed in whichever career they choose,” Cardona said in his opening statement.
Several Republicans slammed Cardona for proposed Title IX revisions that bar states from issuing blanket bans on transgender students from competing in sports that align with their gender identity. Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs.
The House passed a bill that would ban transgender girls from competing in women’s sports that receive Title IX funding, so essentially all public schools. It has no chance in the Senate, and the White House has stated it would veto such legislation.
U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., said his state banned transgender girls from competing in sports that align with their gender. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed the legislation, but the Republican state legislature overrode the governor’s veto.
The proposed federal rule would pull federal funding from a school that has a Title IX violation, which Banks equated to the Department of Education taking away school meals from children.
“You support taking away a school lunch from a needy kid, a kid who (that) might be the only warm meal they get every single day, because that school won’t allow a boy to compete on a girl’s sports team?” Banks asked.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said she found it surprising that Banks was concerned about school lunches for children when he was one of 42 Republicans who voted against expanding access to school meals for students.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., called out Republicans for “picking on trans students.”
But U.S. Rep. Erin Houchin, R-Ind., said because the Department of Education has “failed to protect women,” House Republicans had to pass their bill.
She characterized letting transgender students change clothes in locker rooms that align with their gender identity as sexual harassment. Houchin repeatedly asked Cardona if he considered that sexual harassment.
“I believe the harassment and discrimination against transgender students is something that is rampant in this country and as a department we’re proposing regulations to make sure that all students are seen and valued … and given the same opportunity under Title IX,” Cardona said.
He added that all athletes should be protected from sexual harassment.
“There are students right now that are hurting because elected officials have chosen to use their platform to further ostracize them,” Cardona said.
Several GOP lawmakers, such as U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-11th District, called the administration’s student loan cancellation policy a “bailout” and said it was not fair to constituents who either never took out student loans or paid their loans off.
“I find it simply unacceptable that you would ask my constituents who do not have a college degree, and millions more across the country, to shoulder that burden for individuals who knew what they were getting into, who signed their own name to a federal college loan,” Smucker said.
Cardona said that about 90% of federal student loan borrowers who qualify for the one-time relief make under $75,000, and that the policy would help middle class Americans.
He equated the policy to the temporary pandemic-era Paycheck Protection Program, which also did not benefit every American.
“What it’s intended to do is prevent defaults from happening,” said Cardona.
The policy, announced last year, would cancel up to $10,000 in federal student debt for borrowers earning up to $125,000 annually, or up to $250,000 for married couples, with the boost to $20,000 in forgiveness for Pell Grant recipients.
It only applies to current borrowers, not future ones. Those who have private student loans are not eligible.
The Supreme Court will decide in the coming months whether the Biden administration can carry out the program.
The House committee last week marked up a resolution that aims to overturn the executive order.
Foxx pressed Cardona about when the Department of Education would begin requiring student loan repayments and if he could commit to not extending the pause on student loan repayment.
The Department of Education plans to lift the pause on repayments on June 30, and those borrowers will be required to begin repayments either after the Supreme Court’s decision or 60 days after the June deadline.
Cardona said the Department of Education is not extending the pause after the deadline.
U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., asked Cardona if canceling student loan debt would financially help “folks who never went to college.”
“I believe if we help folks get back into repayment without falling into default, it would help not only them, but their local economy,” Cardona said.
U.S. Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fla., asked Cardona about funding that can be used by parents to send their children to private schools — an umbrella term known as school choice.
“The biggest thing that we can do to raise the bar and empower parents and kids is give school choice, give choice to parents to determine what’s best for their kids,” Bean said.
Cardona said there has been no reduction in federal funding for charter schools, public schools that are alternatives funded by taxpayer dollars, and stressed that the funding that in some states goes to private school vouchers takes away funding from public schools.
“If you start taking dollars away from the local public school, those schools are going to be worse,” Cardona said.
Bean said that he’s concerned about the national debt, and asked Cardona if there are any programs that could be cut.
“Investing in education to me is investing in our country’s economic prosperity,” Cardona said.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn, , said she feels “like our education system is under assault,” and pointed to the far-right group Moms of Liberty that has spurred thousands of book bans from public libraries and public schools that feature books about LGBTQ+ people or people of color.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., made similar remarks.
“When you have over 2,500 books banned across libraries in this country, or attempts to ban those (books), that’s a frightening thought,” he said.
Omar said that movement makes “it harder for a lot of our kids to feel as if they are part of a community.”
She asked Cardona what the Department of Education is doing to protect kids and teachers from those attacks.
Cardona said that the Department of Education has worked to make it clear that all students should be respected and has provided numerous fact sheets to schools and educators.
U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisc., said he was concerned about the diversity of ideology in higher education, arguing that there are not enough conservative professors.
He asked Cardona if having “little diversity in ideology in major universities” bothered him.
“I am concerned at some of the attacks on (diversity, equity and inclusion programs) if that is what you are referencing,” Cardona said.
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a bill to prohibit Florida public universities from using federal funding for DEI initiatives.