Much like the presidents of Harvard, UPenn, and Columbia have in recent months, the superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District is being called to testify before a Republican-led House committee, as Republicans continue to try to vilify "liberal elites" and campus policies around protest and hate speech.

Berkeley schools Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel will testify Wednesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the same committee that has been grilling university presidents about their handling of antisemitism on campus amid protests against the war in Gaza — which often take the shape of protests against Israel itself.

Morthel will be testifying alongside superintendents from school districts in New York City, and in Montgomery County, Maryland. As the New York Times notes, these three districts are being targeted for questioning because they are all diverse, all in liberal areas of the country, and all have "robust American Jewish communities."

"We’re trying to ensure that campuses, whether secondary school or college campus, are safe for students and complying with civil rights laws," says Representative Kevin Kiley, Republican of California, who serves on the committee.

The superintendents are likely to face grilling about the actions of teachers in their districts, and the handling of student protests.

Questioning of Morthel is likely to focus on specific complaints cited in a civil complaint that was filed in February by the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law — the same group that filed suit against UC Berkeley's law school in November over antisemitism among student groups on campus.

The suit claims there has been "severe and persistent" discrimination against Jewish students in the Berkeley Unified School District, and has included teachers who were allowed to promote "antisemitic tropes and false information."

One cited instance, as the Times reports, was of an art teacher in the district, now on administrative leave, who showed students an image of "a fist with a Palestinian flag pounding through a Star of David." Another teacher cited in the complaint is history teacher Becky Villagran, who claims Jewish identity herself, and who taught a lesson back in October that was led by the question "To what extent should Israel be considered an apartheid state?”

"We had just been studying apartheid for three months," Villagran tells the Times. "The timing was just right." And Villagran defends the lesson saying that it sparked lively debate among her students, who saw both sides of the issue.

House Republicans will again be seeking soundbites and ways to paint these segments of liberal America, and K-12 educators, as biased against conservatives, antisemitic, and "radical leftist" in their agendas.

"Berkeley Unified celebrates our diversity and stands against all forms of hate and othering, including antisemitism and Islamophobia," Morthel said in a statement.

Incidentally, Morthel noted in a video message this month about "What's Happening in BUSD," that May is Jewish American Heritage Month in the district, which will be recognized through multiple events.

But under questioning from members of Congress, Morthel will have to thread a needle of defending free speech and defending the district's actions around instances of bias that have offended Jewish parents in particular. In recent months, we have seen these hearings lead directly or indirectly the forced resignations UPenn President M. Elizabeth Magill, and Harvard President Claudine Gay.

"It’s hard to imagine a less welcome invitation," says Justin Driver, a professor at Yale Law School, speaking to the Times about the latest hearing. Driver specializes in how the constitution gets applied in American schools, and published a book in 2018 titled The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind.

Driver tells the Times that public school teachers have less academic freedom and leeway than tenured college professors, and they are typically bound to state-mandated curricula. "The difference between the First Amendment on college campuses and in high schools is roughly the difference between noon and midnight," Driver says.

So, the potential pitfalls for Morthel and the other superintendents are many, and could potentially have consequences beyond this week.

It seems unlikely that David Banks, chancellor of New York City schools, will be as candid in the hearing room as he was speaking to the Times when he said, "I fundamentally believe that if we truly care about solving antisemitism, you don’t do it through cheap political theater."

Wednesday's hearing, which will be before the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, kicks off at 10:15 am Eastern Time. It's titled "Confronting Pervasive Antisemitism in K-12 Schools."

Related: Jewish Group Sues UC Berkeley Law School Over Student Groups' Anti-Zionism Stance

Photo: BUSD/YouTube