WASHINGTON — Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., referred to public schools in Washington, D.C., as "inmate factories" at a congressional hearing on oversight of the nation's capital that saw Republicans criticizing the city's leaders on issues like crime and drugs.
During Wednesday's hearing of the House Oversight Committee, titled "Overdue Oversight of the Capitol City Part 1," Palmer told D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, "You've got crappy schools. Your schools are not only dropout factories, they're inmate factories."
He went on to say that adolescents who commit crimes across the country are largely high school dropouts, telling D.C. Councilman Charles Allen he could shake his head in disagreement "all you want."
Mendelson asked for a chance to respond, saying, "I don’t agree that the D.C. public schools are inmate factories."
Palmer, who as House Republican Policy Chairman is a member of GOP leadership, cut in: "I’m not saying all of them are. I’m saying you have some crappy schools. So you're telling me all of them are excellent?"
Mendelson said no, "but I would not say that they are factories for crime."
Following the hearing, Mendelson said in a statement to NBC News, "The suggestion that DC Public Schools are ‘inmate factories’ is racist and offensive to our parents. It overlooks the dedicated teachers, and it typecasts our children as if they cannot learn.”
Fifty-seven percent of D.C. public school students in the 2021-2022 school year were Black, 21% were Hispanic and 17% were white, according to city data.
Palmer's comments were first reported by WAMU. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Palmer has used the term “inmate factories” to refer to schools before, according to Al.com, which quoted him using the phrase in a 2014 debate to refer to schools with high dropout rates.
Republicans on the Oversight Committee used Wednesday's hearing to question D.C. leaders on crime, while acknowledging that the issue is not unique to Washington, D.C. Democrats and D.C. leaders argued that Congress needs to take action on guns to help bring crime down and emphasized D.C.'s lack of autonomy, arguing that granting statehood would better enable the city to tackle the issue.
The hearing comes a week after President Joe Biden signed a law that overturns changes to Washington, D.C.'s criminal code, which was passed by the council late last year. House Republicans led the effort, but several Democratic senators joined them in voting to undo the council's changes — which included reducing or eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences — after Biden said publicly that he would not veto it.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans on the Oversight Committee began marking up legislation to overturn a D.C. policing bill. That will need to pass the full House and Senate and earn Biden’s support to become law.