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House Republicans Attacked. New York’s Chancellor Defended His Schools.

At a two-hour House hearing on antisemitism in public schools on Wednesday, the New York City schools chief, David C. Banks, made one thing very clear: He was ready to fight.

Mr. Banks, a native New Yorker who leads the nation’s largest school district, in a Democratic stronghold, emerged as a main target of the House Republicans who called the hearing. They sought a repeat of prior congressional hearings that helped fell two Ivy League college presidents and exacerbated a crisis for another.

But Mr. Banks turned it into a moment of his own — taking an unyielding, fiery tone, denying accusations that his district had responded poorly to hateful incidents and, at times, unapologetically speaking over and pushing back against members of Congress.

In one heated exchange, Representative Brandon Williams, a Republican of New York, questioned why Mr. Banks had reassigned, but not fired, the principal of a New York City high school where students raucously filled the halls in protest after a Jewish educator posted support for Israel on social media.

Calling it “Open Season on Jews High School,” Mr. Williams asked, “How can Jewish students go to school knowing that he is still on your payroll?”

“I know whose payroll it is, sir,” Mr. Banks shot back. “And it’s not ‘Open Season on Jews’ school,” the chancellor continued. “It’s called Hillcrest High School.”

Mr. Banks and two other school district officials — from Montgomery County, Md. and Berkeley, Calif. — appeared to lean on their experience navigating tough questions from parents, teachers and students while testifying before a subgroup of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

In a fraught few years for public education, districts have been convulsed with debates over pandemic school closures, the teaching of race and the handling of pronouns for transgender students. For many leaders, contentious meetings — where parents and educators criticize school policies late into the night — are simply a part of the job.

The public school district leaders largely sidestepped some of the pitfalls that haunted the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, who lost their jobs after giving cautious and lawyerly answers late last year, and the president of Columbia, who faced a rebellion on her home campus after taking a conciliatory tone in a hearing last month.

By contrast, Mr. Banks — wearing a New York City public schools pin on the lapel of his navy suit — seemed to put forward a defense of public education.

The chancellor said his demeanor was informed in part by the nature of his role, leading a diverse district of more than 900,000 children. In addition to forcefully pushing back against House Republicans, Mr. Banks also invoked personal stories to describe his fight against bigotry.

And while college leaders were coached for their congressional testimony by teams of white-collar lawyers and crisis-communications gurus, Mr. Banks said that he mainly prepared with top deputies and close friends like Mayor Eric Adams.

“The complexity of New York City prepares you for moments like this,” Mr. Banks said at a news conference after the hearing.

The two other school district leaders also appeared relatively confident. Enikia Ford Morthel, the superintendent of Berkeley schools, who was an administrator for San Francisco public schools through the pandemic, adopted her own unapologetic stance, referring to students in her district as her “babies” and smiling as she fended off questions.

Karla Silvestre, the school board president in Montgomery County, spoke little, and seemed to avoid major blunders.

All three public school leaders acknowledged incidents of antisemitism in their districts, and pledged strong responses. Mr. Banks noted that in New York, officials had disciplined about a dozen staff members and school leaders and suspended at least 30 students.

One Republican representative, Kevin Kiley of California, grilled Ms. Ford Morthel over Berkeley’s connections with a contested network of academics, teachers and consultants who support lessons that are critical of Israel. Ms. Ford Morthel called the group a “thought partner,” but said that Berkeley had not purchased curriculum from the group, and was using curriculum created in-house.

Materials created by Berkeley teachers were also the subject of intense questioning from Mr. Kiley, who pointed out that Ms. Ford Morthel had acknowledged earlier in the hearing that the contested phrase “from the river to the sea” could be considered antisemitic. He questioned why the phrase had been included in a lesson plan by Berkeley teachers, saying that it was no wonder students used the phrase, after being taught it in school.

Representative Aaron Bean, Republican of Florida and chair of the subcommittee, said after the hearing that he considered it “a starter conversation” on the issue of antisemitism in public schools. He brushed off a question about Mr. Banks’s forceful pushback against Republican efforts to portray the school leaders as failing to tackle the issue.

“We said we were going to have an open conversation,” Mr. Bean said. “I think it was very effective. Our objectives were shining the light that this is indeed happening. A lot of folks say it’s not happening.”

Still, by the end of the hearing, Republicans did not seem to have landed a breakout moment.

Representative Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who was a fiery questioner of the college presidents, focused on the Hillcrest High School episode, and the decision to remove the school’s principal and reassign him to a post in the Education Department’s main offices, rather than fire him outright. “We are getting lip service,” she said, “but a lack of enforcement, a lack of accountability.”

Yet even she could not seem to fully crack the chancellor’s confidence.

“You said you fired the principal,” Ms. Stefanik said, urging him to “check the testimony.”

“I never said I fired the principal of Hillcrest — you check the record,” Mr. Banks countered.

(Both were, to some degree, technically correct. Ms. Stefanik’s colleague, Representative Lisa C. McClain, Republican of Michigan, had asked, “So you fired the people?” Mr. Banks replied, “Yes,” but quickly clarified: “We remove people, absolutely.”)

Mr. Banks also sought to use his background to undercut Republican attacks. He said that as a Black man who understands the “history of racism in America,” he was acutely aware of the importance of fighting all forms of hate, including antisemitism.

He also described how his own children learned about antisemitism from their neighbors — who he said were Holocaust survivors in New Jersey — and recalled a “profoundly moving” visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

It was not clear on Wednesday whether Mr. Banks and the other two public school leaders would fully escape backlash at home. Some Jewish parents in their districts have said that school administrators are doing too little to address antisemitism, and are putting their children’s safety at risk.

But in Washington, all three were helped by blunders from House Republicans, who at one point asked whether any students had been expelled or “fired.”

“We don’t fire students,” Mr. Banks said, quick to catch the mistake.

Later, he accused lawmakers of looking for a viral moment, and said the real solution was in the work the New York City public school system was doing every day: educating young people.

“Ultimately, if we really care about solving for antisemitism — and I believe this deeply — it’s not about having ‘gotcha’ moments,” he said. “It’s about teaching.”

Dana Goldstein, Heather Knight and Annie Karni contributed reporting

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