Society and Culture, Education

You Call This Transparency?

Yesterday, on a press conference call, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the following statement about the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) program and transparency: “Our new competitive grant programs like Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation fund include greater transparency than ever before including publishing winning and losing applications, reviewer comments, and applicant’s presentations.” (Thanks to Eliza Krigman of the National Journal for the quotation.) I’ve been asked, in light of the questions I’ve raised earlier this week (here, here, and here), about the department’s process, and whether this means I’m satisfied and/or abashed. The answer is “neither.”

First, the Duncan claim of “greater transparency than ever before” is just hyperbole. For instance, when contacted by Education Week and asked to share the names of the RTT judges or even the location as to where they were being trained, the department refused. More to the point, none of the stuff Duncan alluded to in yesterday’s call has actually happened yet. At this point, it’s all prospective transparency. When the department does follow through on these promises, in April or so, that will be terrific and will start to provide crucial protection against political arm-twisting, aggrieved members of Congress, and public skepticism.

Beyond that, however, it’s critical to recall that the promised measures will all be after the fact and that none of them actually entails any transparency regarding the RTT process. As far as the actual real-time process, the Department of Education never announced that judges had been selected (until Education Week’s Michele McNeil broke that news), hasn’t explained how judges were selected or who did the selection, never explained where the 19 priorities themselves came from, hasn’t explained how judges are to weigh seemingly conflicting criteria or apply the point system, hasn’t explained how conflicts of interest were determined, and hasn’t explained how much the secretary will choose to be bound by the review process (important because this is a discretionary program, so the reviews are purely advisory). Even the Bush administration, which I used to slam for appalling insularity and lack of transparency, did better on some of this. And those programs were only a tiny fraction the size of the historic RTT fund.

Now, Duncan is free to define transparency as he wishes, but no one should imagine that the department gets to decide what constitutes necessary or appropriate transparency. Come to think of it, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was on the Hill just yesterday, getting slammed by House members of both parties, due to concerns that what the Treasury Department and New York Federal Reserve judged sufficient transparency wasn’t quite what they had in mind. I know how they feel.

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