Obama's super-double-secret edu-judges
Late last week, word leaked that the Obama administration has secretly selected the peer reviewers for its $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) fund but has no intention of publicly revealing the identities of these fifty-eight august personages. It now appears that the “disinterested superstars” that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised last September will remain hidden until the RTT first-round winners are announced in April. This despite the President’s commitment to “unprecedented transparency” and RTT chief Joanne Weiss’s pledge that the program would feature an “unprecedented level of transparency.”
Showing off the chops he might have learned in the Clinton White House, Democratic education heavyweight Andy Rotherham has tried to square this circle with the novel argument that, "'Transparent' is not synonymous with contemporaneous. In other words, a process can be transparent while it is going on or it can be transparent after the fact." This is the old “it depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is” defense.
Race to the Top has delivered some benefits, no bones about it. It has spurred several states to raise caps on charter schooling, revisit teacher pay, and strike ludicrous rules that prohibited states and districts from using student learning to evaluate or compensate teachers. Whether these measures play out as hoped and whether they’re worth the money are open questions, but Duncan’s pet program has shown some promise.
So why the secrecy? Why turn the crown jewel of the administration’s $110 billion in education stimulus spending (and foundation of its efforts to reshape American schooling) into a backroom operation?
The old saying “people are policy” is truer than ever here. The reviewers are judging brand-new criteria recently cooked up by the Department of Education, employing a novel, convoluted 500-point rating system to judge nineteen (!) competing “priorities.” They’re also being asked to resolve seemingly-contradictory dictates, such as RTT’s twin mandates that winners demonstrate buy-in from teacher unions and that they present bold plans that are unlikely to win such support.
Innumerable pitfalls lie ahead. The Wall Street Journal has encouraged the administration to ensure that no more than two or three states win funds in April. Even some key administration allies think that no more than four or five states should win. However, forty states and the District of Columbia ended up submitting first-round RTT applications; and rumors have been circulating that the fix is in for this state or that. What’s more, many states are asking for enormous sums. (Tennessee and Ohio, for instance, each seek ten percent of the entire kitty for themselves.) All of this ensures much disappointment and carping, whatever the outcome. To reassure a public that thinks at least half of the stimulus spending has been wasted and that has recoiled at insider deals like health care’s “Cornhusker kickback,” you’d think Duncan would take pains to make the RTT decision-making process as credible as possible.
Especially because there are real concerns about whom the judges might be. Various restrictions, especially regarding conflicts of interest and the extensive time commitment, may have made it difficult to attract the best and the brightest. And what about various forms of “diversity”? Indeed, there are faint echoes here of the fracas that derailed the Bush administration’s centerpiece Reading First program. In that instance, the Education Department’s Inspector General wound up blasting the administration for failing to adequately screen reviewers for conflict of interest. Yet finding elite reviewers with genuine and relevant expertise who had no disqualifying relationships was nearly impossible. In fact, for all the criticism that the Bush Department of Education received for its insularity, the names and affiliations of peer reviewers for such key Spellings initiatives as the growth model pilot and the differentiated accountability pilot were disclosed prior to the reviews taking place.
As one former Bushie has observed, “There are at least a dozen ways the Administration can bend the [RTT] competition to achieve the outcome it wants. And at the end of the day, Secretary Duncan doesn't even have to accept the recommendations of the review panels; they are, legally speaking, just advisory committees.” He suggests, “If the Administration wants to beat back charges of cronyism--from the eventual losers of the competition, watchdog groups, and the public--it will be transparent every step of the way.”
What matters is not only who is judging, but also the instructions they’re receiving. Yet the first training session for reviewers was recently held at an undisclosed location and no news of their training has been forthcoming. This is especially troublesome because the state grant applications are sprawling, phone-book thick lists of promises. Which components to weight, which promises to believe, and how to parse all that edu-jargon will not be a simple or scientific task. When called on this, Duncan allowed only that some reviewers may “spot a potential conflict that had not been considered” prior to the RTT process, but explains, “If such conflicts occur, applications will be reassigned among reviewers.”
An administration that has stumbled over concerns about backroom deals and complaints that it has used stimulus funds for political ends might be well-advised to mount more than a “trust us” defense. Maybe it’s time for the President to roll those famed C-SPAN cameras over to the Department of Education.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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