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Researchers Balk at Trump’s Last-Minute Picks for Ed. Science Board

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 14, 2020 4 min read
Image of President Donald Trump in the oval office.

The U.S. Department of Education’s research advisory panel hasn’t met since 2016, as the Trump administration left expiring and vacant seats unfilled. Now, in the waning days of his term, President Donald Trump has named eight new members to four-year terms on the National Board for Education Sciences—several of whom have little to no connection to K-12 education.

The choices, dribbled out over the course of the last week, are drawing criticism from education research groups, even though they fill a long-standing void for the field. Critics argue some of the nominees have too close of ties to the Trump administration.

Under law, the NBES must have 15 voting members appointed by the president. It has struggled through the years replacing outgoing members quickly enough to keep its quorum during the Obama administration as well and had to delay one meeting and hold another via conference call during federal shutdowns over budget negotiations in 2016.

The board’s work basically ground to a halt under the current administration. Institute for Education Sciences Director Mark Schneider was at one point even called on the carpet by Congress because the lack of the board significantly delayed setting new research priorities.

While the board still has four open seats, the new members would allow the board to restart advisory work required by Congress, along with three other members approved last year. According to the IES, they still must complete financial and ethics clearance, and no board meeting has been scheduled. Moreover, Congress has still not updated the Education Sciences Reform Act, which governs IES and the advisory board.

Education experts immediately protested the nominees’ lack of significant education research experience. By contrast, Trump’s final two nominations to the National Science Board, a separate research advisory board that helps shape the budget for the National Science foundation, included an astronomer and a mechanical engineer.

Nominees have limited education experience, ties to Trump

Felice Levine, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association, the nation’s largest education research group, said: “Serving on the IES’ board is about giving scientific advice in a nonbiased way on where priorities for research and investments should be. The capacity of those members to provide independent and expert advice is very, very central to that.”

The new members are:

  • Dale Ahlquist, the only nominee with a position in K-12 education and co-founder of the private Chesterton Academy in Minnesota, and head of the Chesterton Schools Network of more than 30 Catholic high schools that which use a curriculum he developed.
  • Michael Anton, a lecturer and research fellow focusing on political science at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute, and a former senior national security official in the Trump administration.
  • Lisa Cutone of California (Further information was not available from the research agency at press time.)
  • Marina A. DeWit, a representative for the federal Small Business Administration’s office of advocacy for Arizona, California, Nevada, Hawaii, and Guam.
  • Michael Faulkender, an associate dean of master’s programs and a finance professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.
  • Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics and founder and co‐director of the Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University
  • Larry Schweikart, a retired history professor from the University of Dayton in Ohio.
  • John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Critics have also questioned nominees’ connections to the president. Marina DeWitt’s husband Jeff served as chief operating officer of Trump’s re-election campaign, and Schweikart wrote “How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution,” and “48 Liberal Lies About American History.” Several of the nominees, including Yoo and Anton, have been vocal Trump supporters on social media. Yoo, as part of President George W. Bush’s Justice Department, also authored the controversial so-called “torture memos,” which laid out justification for enhanced interrogations.

Ahlquist recently favored a move to “defund public education” in favor of universal vouchers. “I expect this new position is going to be a true challenge,” Ahlquist said in a statement on his nomination. “I will be given a unique perspective of the state of education in this country, and I doubt I’m going to see a very good report card. I welcome the opportunity to work with other education leaders who want to improve all of our schools.”

Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which represents research groups, was among those with sharp criticism of the nominations.

“Since its founding, IES has prided itself on being nonpartisan, as any federal research agency or department should be,” she said. “This most recent round of appointments to the National Board of Education Sciences, which advises IES, is beyond disappointing and highly partisan.”

Levine and McLaughlin both noted that while the Senate no longer needs to confirm board members’ nominations, the law still allows the president to remove them. That would mean President-Elect Joe Biden could take the board members out before the end of their terms, but prior presidents have not done this, and it would require finding new nominees for a dozen board members, a heavy lift.

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