Obama's Secret Edu-Judges

Late last week, word leaked out that the Obama administration has selected the 58 reviewers for state applications to its $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) fund--and has no intention of revealing their names. It appears that the "disinterested superstars" that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised last September will remain hidden until after the RTT 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 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 take steps to raise caps on charter schooling, revisit teacher pay, and eliminate the ludicrous rules that prohibit states and districts from using student learning to evaluate or compensate teachers. That said, when it comes to the crown jewel of its $110 billion in education stimulus spending and the foundation of its efforts to reshape American schooling, an administration rocked by backlash against backroom deals really wants to hide the judging table from the public?

[T]here are real concerns about who 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.

The old saying "people are policy" is truer than ever here. The reviewers will use brand-new criteria recently cooked up by the Department of Education; employing a novel, convoluted 500-point rating system to judge 19 competing "priorities." They will be asked to resolve seemingly contradictory dictates--for example, RTT winners must both demonstrate buy-in from teachers' unions and present bold plans unlikely to earn such support.

There are lots of potential pitfalls. 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, 40 states and D.C. submitted RTT applications; rumors have been circulating that the fix is in for this state or that. That ensures there will be a lot of disappointment and a lot of carping. To reassure a public that thinks at least half of the stimulus spending has been wasted and has recoiled at inside deals like the late and unlamented "Cornhusker kickback," not to mention states that come up empty, you'd think Duncan would be at pains to make the evaluation process as credible as possible.

Especially because there are real concerns about who 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. Indeed, there are reminders here of the fracas that derailed the Bush administration's centerpiece Reading First program. In that case, the Department of Education's inspector general blasted the Bush team for failing to adequately screen reviewers for conflicts of interest, but finding elite reviewers with reading-research expertise who had no disqualifying relationships was nearly impossible. In fact, for all the criticism that the Bush Department of Education justly received for insularity and a lack of transparency, the names and affiliations of peer reviewers for key initiatives such as the growth-model pilot and the differentiated-accountability pilot were disclosed prior to the reviews taking place.

As one former Bush education official has observed, "There are at least a dozen ways the administration can bend the 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 advises, "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."

But names aren't the only thing the administration is keeping to itself. The reviewers' first training session was recently held at a super-secret location, and no details about the session have 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 hundreds of pages of edu-jargon will not be a simple or scientific task. When called on this, Secretary 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 concerns 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 the director of education policy studies at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Nick Schlax

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