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Academics fret over foreign influence threats to American research

With help from Nicole Gaudiano, Michael Stratford and Bianca Quilantan

Editor’s Note: This edition of Morning Education is published weekdays at 10 a.m. POLITICO Pro Education subscribers hold exclusive early access to the newsletter each morning at 6 a.m. Learn more about POLITICO Pro’s comprehensive policy intelligence coverage, policy tools and services at politicopro.com.

Threats of foreign influence in American research prompted soul-searching and calls for better policy from top academics gathered in Washington this week.

In her role as a surrogate for President Donald Trump’s reelection bid, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is seen as someone who’s key to firing up the president’s base.

House Homeland Security Committee members got an update on DHS’ school safety clearinghouse rollout — and one key lawmaker is concerned over the delay.

GOOD MORNING, IT’S FRIDAY FEB. 7. Here’s your daily reminder to send tips to today’s host at jperez@politico.com — and also colleagues Nicole Gaudiano (ngaudiano@politico.com), Michael Stratford (mstratford@politico.com) and Bianca Quilantan (bquilantan@politico.com). Share your event listings with educalendar@politicopro.com. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @Morning_Edu and @POLITICOPro.

IT’S A TENSE TIME FOR THE AMERICAN RESEARCH COMMUNITY. Foreign influence in higher education, particularly from China, is in federal government crosshairs. Authorities accused a Harvard department chair of making false statements about research funding from the Chinese government. Confucius Institutes are under fire.

Fighting national security threats while preserving bedrock principles of academic freedom and intellectual exchange isn’t easy in this environment, and a group of top academics tried to summarize the tension on Thursday during the China Initiative Conference at the Center For Strategic & International Studies.

“Universities are inherently very decentralized places,” said Mary Sue Coleman, the retiring president of the Association of American Universities. “That’s been helpful, but now we’re in an environment where we must have more coordination, more centralization.”

Some university leaders say new efforts are needed to monitor efforts to exploit and influence potentially lucrative research activities. That includes undisclosed foreign funding, potential conflicts of interest, and even what the Trump administration describes as a “surreptitious gaming of the peer-review process.”

Looking ahead, panelists urged the government to share consistent information and create uniform guidelines and procedures for universities.

“I think that’s absolutely essential for the future of the research enterprise in the United States and at our universities,” said University of Texas at Austin President Gregory Fenves. “As we can have more specific information that helps us to identify specific problems, that would be beneficial.”

DEVOS WAS DEPLOYED “LIKE A ROCK STAR” ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN TRAIL, as the president makes a concerted push on education issues. Michael Stratford has a super sharp story from Pennsylvania that you’ll want to read.

— “The campaign is using DeVos, a devout Christian, to beef up ties with voters who see her as the fiercest defender of conservative education policies like vouchers and free speech on college campuses,” Michael writes.

“They want government control of everything — your health care, your wallet, your child’s education,” DeVos said of Democrats while on the trail this week.

That kind of message is resonating with Pennsylvania voters, said Bernadette Comfort, the chairwoman of Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania and an advisory board member for Women for Trump.


“From Europe to Australia and the United States, universities in countries that host Chinese students have reconsidered academic-related travel to and from China,” write Michael Melia and Kantele Franko. “In the U.S., the cancellations add to the tension between two governments whose relations were already sour.”

Now there are worries the outbreak might damage academic exchange programs, experts said.

DHS WAS EXPECTED TO UNVEIL A “BEST PRACTICES” CLEARINGHOUSE ON SCHOOL SECURITY IN OCTOBER. It’s now February, and a key House lawmaker said he’s concerned.

DHS officials on Thursday gave members of two House Homeland Security subcommittees a demonstration of the clearinghouse during a closed-door briefing.

Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery Subcommittee, told POLITICO the website looks like it will be “very useful” to schools, and it will even suggest areas of vulnerability. “So we’re really interested in seeing this website get stood up,” he said.

But Payne said DHS officials didn’t have a good reason for the holdup and he blamed the Trump administration. The website appears ready, but the officials who gave the briefing “haven’t been given the green light” to release it.

The clearinghouse is among the recommendations of the Federal Commission on School Safety following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

A DHS spokesperson could not be reached immediately for comment.

BILLIONAIRE PRESIDENTIAL CONTENDER TOM STEYER RELEASED A K-12 EDUCATION PLAN, as he seeks to stay in the running to oust Trump. Here are some highlights:

Teacher pay: Steyer’s campaign said his administration would “match every additional dollar” that states and local districts spend on teacher raises by a 2-to-1 ratio, and match pay increases for teacher’s assistants and other support staff on a 1-to-1 basis.

Student loans: In another nod to teachers, Steyer’s campaign said the administration would use executive action to forgive the loans of teachers and public servants who have worked for 10 years and made 120 loan payments.

Title I funding: In a position similar to other presidential challengers, Steyer would triple Title 1 funding meant for low-income students. The campaign said his administration would also “incentivize states to adopt more equitable school funding formulas.”

Segregation: Steyer’s campaign said “any changes to school district boundaries” would require pre-clearance from the federal government to evaluate the racial and socioeconomic impact.

SCHOOL OFFICIALS WARN THAT TRUMP’S FOOD STAMP PROPOSAL WILL THREATEN FREE MEALS, and could create burdensome paperwork for impoverished parents.

House lawmakers heard worries on Thursday about an Agriculture Department proposal that could cut an estimated 3.1 million people from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by changing what’s known as broad-based categorical eligibility. The current policy allows 43 states to expand the number of low-income people who qualify for SNAP.

“If changes are made to the broad-based categorical eligibility, a segment of our families will no longer qualify for SNAP,” Zach Pethan, a principal at Jefferson Elementary in Wisconsin, told the House Oversight Committee. “When this percentage goes down, we are unable to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students.”

A USDA document has shown the proposed changes would affect nearly 1 million students who receive free or lower-cost meals. POLITICO’s Catherine Boudreau has the story.

A NEVADA DEMOCRAT AND MINNESOTA REPUBLICAN INTRODUCED NEW LEGISLATION ON CHILD CARE, in an effort to allow nonprofit child care providers access to larger Small Business Administration loans.

Reps. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) and Pete Stauber (R-Minn.) said the Small Business Child Care Investment Act would allow those providers to use loan programs worth up to $5.5 million for real estate, construction and other infrastructure costs.

TWO TENNESSEE COUNTIES FILED A LAWSUIT CHALLENGING THE STATE’S SCHOOL VOUCHER LAW, which is supposed to go into effect in the 2020-21 school year.

The counties, home to Tennessee’s largest school districts, are charging that the voucher law violates a provision that limits the “Tennessee General Assembly’s ability to narrowly draw legislation to affect local communities without local consent.” It also violates the constitution’s equal protection law, they contend. More from Bianca Quilantan.


Whitmer delivered Democrats’ response to Trump’s State of the Union address this week, and has floated a budget proposal that features $120 million in additional funding for special education and economically disadvantaged students.


GOP legislators are pressing for the change, POLITICO’s Andrew Atterbury reports, arguing the state needs to be able to recruit the best talent for top college roles and its Sunshine Law can be a hindrance for applicants.

— CFPB eyes ‘joint’ supervision of student loan companies with Education Department: POLITICO Pro

— Facial recognition moves into a new front: Schools: New York Times

— A Milwaukee teacher has been put on leave after tweeting that Rush Limbaugh’s cancer is ‘awesome’: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

— Colorado considers student athlete compensation bill: Associated Press

— Here’s how some big names in education are spending in the 2020 presidential race: Chalkbeat

— Graduates of historically black colleges may be paying more for loans: Watchdog group: NPR

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