Society and Culture, Education

‘Unprecedented Levels of Transparency’? Not So Far

Here’s an update on yesterday’s post regarding Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s desire to keep under lock and key the names of the judges reviewing state applications for his signature $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) program. Following on the president’s 2009 pledge that stimulus spending would be accompanied by an “unprecedented level of openness” and carried out with particular attention to transparency, Duncan personally promised in a blog post yesterday afternoon that the department had “enhanced” the “discretionary grant process to ensure maximum integrity and transparency” in the RTT process. Yet, he also repeated his insistence that the names of the judges would not be publicly released until after the cake is baked and the winners are announced in April—when it might be just a wee bit late for concerns about the judges or the process to be addressed.

Responding to concerns raised here and elsewhere about the department’s refusal to identify its judges or share details regarding their instructions, Duncan took pains to explain how the judging process would work. Readers can judge for themselves how satisfying his response was to concerns about the guidance that reviewers were given and how conflicts have been handled. Duncan explained that the public need not worry about the fairness or nature of the review process because reviewers have now received (a day) of training in:

• “Understanding the Race to the Top program and its components.
• Writing comments and scoring applications.
• Spotting conflicts of interest.”

That’s it. Call me demanding if you like but, as far as transparency goes, I think that explanation leaves a good bit to be desired. Meanwhile, Duncan suggests that we can stop worrying about conflicts of interest because of “the extensive vetting that occurred prior to the selection of the reviewers.” For instance, he explains, “The Department’s legal ethics team also eliminated any applicant with existing or potential conflicts of interest, including people currently employed by a state department of education or school district.”

Now, Duncan allows 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.” Oh, good. Can’t imagine any problems with that plan. On second thought, Duncan’s team might want to call someone who watched the Bush administration’s “Reading First” program implode due to concerns about conflicts of interest, problematic review processes, and suspicions of political influence. The result: a terrific idea and a promising program went down in flames… and we were talking only a fraction of the dollars now at stake in RTT.

It might be time for Duncan to revisit his notion of “unprecedented levels of transparency.” Because, so far, the department’s approach feels pretty darn precedented.

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