What Educators Should Know About Mike Johnson, New Speaker of the House

This article was first published by EducationWeek by Libby Stanford, Reporter for Education Week.

The Louisiana congressman elected speaker of the U.S. House on Wednesday has signed onto a number of education policies that have become top priorities for conservative Republicans across the country in recent years.

Serving his fourth term in Congress, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson has supported banning instruction about gender identity and sexuality for children under age 10, prohibiting transgender girls from joining girls’ athletic teams, and curtailing federal funding for any entity that teaches that the United States is fundamentally racist.

Other policies that Johnson has supported could radically change the way the federal government dispenses funds to U.S. schools and create a federal program funding private school choice.

Johnson ascended to the speaker’s rostrum after a tumultuous three weeks during which House Republicans went through three nominees who couldn’t capture the support of a majority of House members. The House lacked a speaker after a conservative bloc forced former Speaker Kevin McCarthy from office, following the passage of a government funding package that attracted support from more Democrats than Republicans.

Johnson prevailed in a vote of 220-209 against Democratic nominee Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, on Wednesday, Oct. 25.

Johnson, a lawyer by trade who served in the Louisiana House before his election to the U.S. House in 2016, last year sponsored the “Stop the Sexualization of Children Act,” a bill that would have prohibited federal funding for “any sexually oriented program, event, or literature for children under the age of 10.” In introducing the bill, Johnson accused Democrats of orchestrating “a misguided crusade to immerse young children in sexual imagery,” but critics labeled the bill a federal version of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Act,” otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The bill did not make it through the House.

The bills he’s cosponsored that would affect schools and students largely reflect priorities passed by Republicans at the state level. They include a proposed ban on mask mandates; a ban on gender-affirming care for minors; and the parents’ rights bill that passed the House earlier this year explicitly outlining parents’ rights to, among other things, know what their children are being taught at school, see school budgets, and be heard by school leaders.

He’s also signed onto a proposal that would create a federal tax credit to facilitate private school choice and another that would allow states to receive their federal education funds in the form of a block grant, freeing them from many of the requirements that accompany funds they receive under Title I—the federal program that supports low-income schools—and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

One successful bill he cosponsored clarifies that schools can use federal funds to pay for school hunting and archery programs. That legislation, which President Joe Biden signed into law on Oct. 6, was a response to concerns that federal funds couldn’t be used for those purposes after Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Outside of education, Johnson is also known for his role in efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. He led an amicus brief signed by over 100 Republican lawmakers in support of a Texas lawsuit that challenged election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The speaker can influence education policy agenda

As speaker, Johnson will set the tone for the Republican policy agenda, influencing which education-related bills are introduced, debated, and passed.

In the less than nine months he served as speaker, McCarthy made parental rights a priority, joining Reps. Julia Letlow, R-La., and education committee Chair Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., in introducing the federal Parents Bill of Rights in March.

Johnson could choose to advance similar priorities.

He’ll also play a major role in influencing the federal budget, which includes funding for important K-12 programs, like Title I and the IDEA.

Earlier this year, Republicans in the House proposed a spending bill that would cut funding for the U.S. Department of Education by $22.5 billion, or 28 percent, including a $14.7 billion cut to Title I that would reduce funding for the program by 80 percent. President Joe Biden’s budget earlier this year proposed increases to Title I and other areas of the Education Department’s budget.

An early budget-related challenge for Johnson will be the upcoming, Nov. 17 deadline for Congress to pass a round of spending bills to fund the federal government or risk a government shutdown.

A shutdown likely wouldn’t have a dramatic effect on the nation’s schools, at least not immediately. But if a shutdown dragged on, federal funds for school meals and child care services could run out; schools that depend the most on the federal government for funding could miss some federal payments; and most U.S. Department of Education staff would be furloughed.