Attorney General Merrick Garland is scheduled to testify in his first oversight hearing with the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday – offering both sides of the aisle opportunities to press him on key issues.
Texas’ abortion ban, voting rights, the border crisis and the Jan. 6 riots could all come up as big topics that have caught attention during his brief time leading the Department of Justice (DOJ). Republicans will likely hone in on Garland’s recent memo, announcing that the FBI would investigate threats or intimidation by parents against school boards across the U.S.
Here’s what to expect in terms of questions surrounding education:
Are parents domestic terrorists?
Garland’s memo combined two already-explosive political issues – domestic terrorism and critical race theory (CRT) – in a way that will likely prompt questions about parents’ rights. Republicans have expressed the desire to determine how DOJ views purported threats from parents. What they see as a grassroots uprising has been disparaged by the National School Board Association (NSBA) for including intimidation and harassment.
Garland’s memo didn’t use the term “domestic terrorist” and clarified that “spirited debate” was not the target of his probe. But many have raised concerns about the timing of Garland’s memo, which was released just days after the NSBA sent a letter to the Biden administration suggesting that parents may be engaging in domestic terrorism.
The letter went on to ask the administration to consider its powers under The Patriot Act, the sweeping surveillance legislation passed in the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11.
The Garland family’s involvement in the education sector
Shortly after Garland’s memo, news surfaced that his son-in-law Xan Tanner co-founded an education consultancy that not only pushed CRT-related ideas but also provided services to school districts across the country. Garland’s ties to the company have raised questions about how much his family stands to benefit from law enforcement cracking down on school board opposition.
The company, Panorama Education, has said it supported “13 million students in districts of all shapes and sizes. 50+ of the largest 100 districts in the country and state agencies use Panorama Education, including the New York City Department of Education, Clark County School District (Nevada), Dallas ISD (Texas), and the Hawaii Department of Education.”
Forbes.com reported that the company also garnered tens of millions of dollars in business investment in addition to $27 million worth of payments from school systems between 2017 and 2020. Since 2017, it reportedly saw a nearly fourfold increase in business. The number of school systems it worked with grew from 400 to 1,500, as noted in a recent press release.
Details about the investigation and implications for free speech
Garland’s memo indicated concern for free speech, stating: “While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.”
Regardless, critics have raised concerns with the probe, which injects federal law enforcement into an area typically reserved to state and local governments.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., sent Garland a letter earlier this month expressing concern that the investigation could chill constitutionally protected speech. Calling the NSBA’s letter “pure gaslighting,” he also worried about the way it described anti-CRT efforts.
Is critical race theory divisive? Does it violate students’ and parents’ rights?
Much of the debate over CRT centers on whether the teaching of racial curricula contravenes American ideas about equality, justice and free speech. Throughout the country, lawsuits and protests have emerged alleging that CRT, which seeks to combat racism, is racist in itself.
As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Garland may encounter questions about whether CRT-related lessons violate the Constitution and how much say parents should have in how those lessons are taught in schools.
In a similar vein, Garland may face questions about state laws that attempt to ban CRT and whether those are constitutional. CRT bans have encountered criticism for, among other things, allegedly violating teachers’ free speech.