Congressional Hearing Discusses Chinese Influence on K-12 Schools

Brendan Clarey | September 25

(Chalkboard News) — Lawmakers in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a congressional hearing on the “covert influence” of foreign governments in the nation’s K-12 education system, specifically concerns from a recent report on cultural centers, which some allege have ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education’s hearing divided Republicans and Democrats, with Republicans citing the importance of protecting the nation’s schools from foreign influences while Democrats said a 2019 Senate report debunked claims that China holds sway over the U.S. education system.

Confucius Classrooms and Confucius Institutes are Chinese cultural and language centers funded by the Chinese government, according to a 2021 piece from the Brookings Institution. Confucius Classrooms are operated at K-12 schools while the Institutes operate at colleges and universities. 

Questions from lawmakers and testimony from the hearing mostly centered on the potential problems with Confucius Classrooms as well as what possible government action would look like. 

“The CCP influence is rampant in America’s classrooms,” said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fla. “Over 500 K-12 schools across the United States have allowed the CCP to establish itself in their halls under the guise of Confucius Classrooms.”

“But when you pull back the curtain on these cultural exchange centers, you find a CCP-backed agenda that undermines the principles upon which our education system is built,” Bean said. “The risk posed by the proliferation of communist Confucius Classrooms is threefold — threatening America’s national, geopolitical and academic interests.”

Republicans cited a report called “Little Red Classrooms” from the organization Parents Defending Education released in July that alleged the Chinese Ministry of Education operated Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in 143 school districts since 2009. 

“Our research into foreign funding in K-12 schools began in March of this year when a parent at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology provided records showing that the school received over $1 million in donations from various entities linked to the Chinese government,” Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, told lawmakers. 

“On August 29, Fairfax County Public Schools provided [Virginia’s] Education Secretary Aimee Guidera with information about donations from Chinese entities, which was nearly four times higher –— $3.6 million — than we knew,” Neily continued. 

“A recent FOIA we received from Fairfax County Public Schools provided names of teachers who visited in 2017,” Neily said later in her testimony. “Five of the six were CCP members, with one receiving an award for ‘Outstanding Communist of Haidian District.’” 

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, decried the hearing as advancing Republicans’ “extreme agenda,” slammed his colleagues for their proposed budget cuts ahead of the possible government shutdown and attacked the report’s findings.

“Rather than finding ways to help families keep a roof over their heads; put food on the table; find affordable, quality childcare; the majority would rather take the committee’s time promoting conspiracy theories and dubious research,” Rep. Scott said. 

Scott said it was concerning that Republicans would hold a hearing on an “unsubstantiated report which was paid for by a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as an extremist organization.” 

“This report, and the allegations in it, have already been debunked by a 2019 Senate investigation, hearing and report,” Scott said. “And this hearing gives it credibility it does not deserve.”  

That report found that the Chinese Government funds the Confucius Institutes and “provides Chinese teachers to teach language classes to students and non-student community members” as well as cultural events, classes and performances.

“These selective events depict China as approachable and compassionate; rarely are events critical or controversial,” the 2019 report found. “The Chinese government also funds and provides language instructors for Confucius Classrooms, which offer classes for kindergarten through 12th-grade students.”

“Confucius Institute funding comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom,” the report said. “The Chinese government approves all teachers, events and speakers.” 

“As one U.S. school administrator explained to the Subcommittee, when something is ‘funded by the Chinese government, you know what you’re getting,’” the report reads. 

The 2019 report also said the Confucius Institute program is part of China’s larger plan to “change the impression in the United States and around the world that China is an economic and security threat.” 

Several witnesses in the hearing were critical of China’s ability to stifle conversations unfavorable to the goals of that country, such as discussions around Taiwan and Tiananmen Square.

Another witness said the federal government’s response should ensure Asian Americans are not subject to discrimination.