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Federal Q&A

Why an Influential Member of Congress Wants a National Investigation Into School Closures

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 15, 2021 8 min read
House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., greets Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on June 6, 2018 at the conclusion of a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on "Examining the Policies and Priorities of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.'

Rep. Virginia Foxx wants answers.

The North Carolina Republican, who is the ranking member of the House education committee, has used her role to press for answers about the impacts of school closures and who should be held accountable.

Earlier this month, for example, she called on the federal government to investigate states and school districts for, as she and other GOP lawmakers said, failing to provide special education services mandated by law. Separately, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights has launched investigations into several school districts’ education of students with disabilities during the pandemic.

We spoke with Foxx on March 12 about her perspective on school closures, K-12 choice, the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill, and other issues. The following Q&A with Foxx has been edited for length and clarity.

Your March 8 letter calling for a bipartisan investigation into school closures says states and localities have, among other things, failed to follow federal special education law. You’re someone who typically thinks the best decisions about education are made locally and not in Washington. Why do you think states and school districts, in many instances, have not done what they should have over the past year?

There’s a combination of things. The unions, obviously, have pushed to keep the schools closed. I think the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines have been very, very confusing, and they have contributed to the schools not opening. I think even the latest CDC guidelines are creating loopholes for the schools to stay closed. I think that what we know about schools successfully opening—many have opened up with three-foot distances between the students. They’re not having outbreaks of COVID in the schools. Even the fact that the White House dismissed the comments by the director of the CDC saying that she was speaking in her personal capacity [about the necessity of teacher vaccinations for schools to reopen], not her official capacity ... I just think a lot of mixed signals are going out to the schools.

But to go back to the original question, about why we sent the letter ... it’s because there is a law. The special needs students, the students who qualify for the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], are protected by federal law. We should hold [schools] accountable. My middle initial is A, and I tell everyone that it stands for “Accountability.” [Federal agencies] only put in about 9 percent of the total funding, but we control about 95 percent of the rules and regulations that are in the schools. So it’s entirely appropriate that we speak up on behalf of the parents and the students who qualify for the IDEA, because it is the federal law.

In your letter, you highlighted the experience of many parents during the pandemic and their struggles. Do you think a federal probe into school closures is necessary because we don’t have a good grasp yet on the various negative effects of those closures on students and families? Or do you think a federal probe would be most important because it would hold the education community accountable for what’s already generally known and understood?

I think it would highlight the failures of the school systems primarily caused by the union pressure on the administrators in the schools. There’s been plenty of information about how students don’t get COVID, or it’s been such an extraordinarily small number. There have been school systems that have been open.

There’s something almost every day in the news about the lack of threat of opening the schools in terms of the spreading of COVID. On the other hand, we have information that tells us that students are being harmed by the schools being closed. There’s both short-term and long-term harm to them being closed.

One of the comments that was made [at a roundtable on reopening schools] by a member of the panel was: “Today’s learning loss is tomorrow’s earning loss.” ... It’s going to take them years to catch up.

We’re taking a precious commodity away from these students and the families. The parents are having time taken away from them because they’re trying to be good parents and they’re staying at home with their children.

You’ve criticized President Joe Biden’s administration for not more forcefully recommending that schools resume in-person classes. Last summer, President Donald Trump and his administration put a significant amount of public pressure on schools in various ways to reopen their doors for this school year, yet the results have not been what you and many others wanted. What do you want to see from the Biden administration that would be different, and that would be a a new and more effective form of pressure on schools to reopen?

I hate to keep beating the same [horse], but the unions and the Democrats were going to do everything they [could] to make President Trump look bad. So they didn’t want to open up the schools, because President Trump was asking them to do it.

In the case of President Biden, they helped get him elected. He’s seeing that their intransigence in terms of reopening schools is hurting his larger base. The unions form his core base, but he has a larger base of people, particularly people of color—you would think the unions would want to help President Biden in his efforts. Why doesn’t President Biden have more influence on the unions? It’s clear they’re not going to listen to anybody. It’s clear they don’t care about the students. They don’t care about the parents. They don’t care that President Biden isn’t being made to look very good in this situation.

Just as a follow-up question: Do you think that the problem of teachers’ unions working and lobbying to keep schools closed is primarily a problem in big-city districts where they have a lot of power? Because there are a lot of districts where they don’t have a lot of legal power or they’re not a huge political force. Do you think [the issue] is more widespread than big cities? Many districts have returned to offering some kind of in-person instruction.

It’s obviously a bigger problem in the cities. Look at Chicago. I read the newspapers too. I don’t represent Chicago. But they even defied the mayor up there.

I have to say that the [North Carolina Association of Educators] has held a big sway over Democrat legislators in particular. But I’m very appreciative of the fact that the legislature is pushing forward despite the governor not wanting to be a leader in opening schools. They’ve come to a compromise on getting the schools open by April 1.

Despite the growth of school choice in states in recent years, Congress has proven to be very reluctant to back a significant, nationwide expansion of private school choice. Do you think the fallout from the pandemic means that will change if and when Republicans retake control of the Congress? What do you think about that long-term impact?

Certainly Republicans when they’re in the majority do everything they can to promote school choice. Frankly, Andrew, what the unions are doing right now to keep the schools closed is going to do more to push parents to push for school choice and give backing to those who believe in school choice.

One of the better effects of what’s happened with COVID, and the reaction of the teachers’ unions and the administrators, is to foster the idea of school choice. It’s the best thing that’s come out of it. You see it already. We won’t have the statistics probably for awhile.

I think we’re going to see larger varieties of school choice. Now that the districts have learned to do distance learning better ... I think that should be another choice that parents have. That might work well with children who do do well with learning online, and parents who might want to have more supervision of their students’ learning.

But it doesn’t sound like, based on that answer, that you think that Congress is really going to be driving it much, if at all.

No. And I don’t think Congress should. When I go speak to people in the schools, students, and even adults, I take my pocket copy of the Constitution. I say, if you can find the word “education” in here as a responsibility of the federal government, then I’ll eat these pages.

Do you think last year’s CARES Act funding should have been enough for schools to reopen? Was the CARES Act funding too much? Did they not need that money?

What the CDC estimated they needed to implement COVID-19 mitigation strategies was approximately $25 billion. [A December 2020 CDC report on several COVID-19 mitigation measures for schools included a maximum per-pupil cost estimate of $442 per student, the figure Foxx used to derive the total cost, although the CDC report does not account for factors such as social distancing in classrooms, and it wasn’t intended to address priorities like learning recovery.]

Congress appropriated nearly $70 billion for K-12 funding for coronavirus relief. So more than double what the CDC’s highest funding estimate was. [The $70 billion figure from Foxx is a reference to about $67 billion provided in two relief bills enacted in 2020, but does not include the American Rescue Plan’s approximately $129 billion in K-12 education funding that Biden signed into law March 11.]

My understanding is that the CDC’s cost estimates didn’t include some things that schools would have to take into account. But you’re saying that the amount of money needed to safely reopen is much less overall than what Congress provided?

I’m not just saying that. The CDC is saying that. You tell me when a government agency has ever underestimated what somebody needed, what some agency needed. They always overestimate.

I know that you like to speak to student groups when you can, under normal circumstances. What if anything have you told them, or would you tell students, about what happened in the U.S. Capitol when it comes to your Jan. 6 vote on the election results and the violence that happened that day?

I have roundly condemned what happened in the Capitol Jan. 6. There’s no excuse for Capitol security to be breached by people. It’s wrong. We’re a nation of laws. And if we don’t adhere to the law, then we will have anarchy. I would always tell anybody, adults, students: Don’t ever break the law to try to get your points across. Stick within the law and use every lawful means to make your point.

I think I can say with certainty that not everybody that was in that group that day came to the Capitol with the intention of breaking in. We all know that it’s easy for people to get caught up in a mob scene and get swept along. Exactly who had the intentions, I don’t know.

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