Shhhhh…Duncan’s Secret Edu-Judges

Late last week, Education Week’s Michele McNeil reported that the Obama administration has secretly selected the reviewers for state grant applications to its $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) fund, but has no intention of publicly revealing who these 60 judges are. Whether the department delivered 60 “disinterested superstars,” as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised last September, is unclear.

Instead, apparently fearing that its handpicked reviewers would be subjected to blandishments or threats from knee-capping state departments of education, the administration hopes to protect their fragile virtue by hiding them until after the RTT winners are announced in April.  Telling us who did the judging, after the cake’s been baked and the winners announced, hardly seems a recipe for instilling confidence and assuaging doubts.

Now, RTT has clearly delivered some benefits. It has spurred several states to take steps 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.

But let’s get this straight. 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 public outcry against backroom deals wants to hide the judging table from the public? After the President pledged that stimulus spending would be accompanied by “unprecedented transparency” and after Duncan personally promised in a blog post (just yesterday!!) that the Department had “enhanced” the “discretionary grant process to ensure maximum integrity and transparency” in the Race to the Top process?

The old adage that“people are policy,” is, in this case,  truer than ever. 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 19 (!) competing “priorities”; and being asked to resolve seemingly contradictory dictates—such as RTT’s twin mandates that winners demonstrate buy-in from teacher unions and that they also present bold reform plans unlikely to earn such support.

There are lots of potential pitfalls. Even some key administration allies think that no more than four or five states should win funding in April. However, 40 states and D.C. submitted RTT applications, and rumors have been circulating that the fix is in for this state or that. 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,” as well as states that come up empty, you’d think Duncan would be at pains to make the evaluation process as transparent and credible as possible.

This is especially true because there are real concerns about who the judges might be. Some have noted that the various restrictions, especially regarding conflicts of interest and the extensive required time commitment, may have made it difficult to attract the best and the brightest.

This is all especially troublesome because the state grant applications are sprawling, phone book–thick lists of promises that run to hundreds of pages and can be interpreted in myriad ways. Which components to weigh, which promises to believe, and how to parse hundreds of pages of edu-jargon will not be a simple or scientific task.

Reacting to concerns flagged in the past day or two, Duncan took pains to explain in yesterday’s blog post how the judging 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


And… well, that’s about it. Call me demanding if you like but, as far as transparency goes, I do think that explanation leaves a good bit to be desired.  Meanwhile, Duncan blogs that we can stop worrying about conflicts of interest because of “the extensive vetting that occurred prior to the selection of the reviewers.”  Now, he 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 dial an old Bush hand who watched that aministration’s “Reading First” program implode in the face of 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.

An administration that has stumbled over concerns about backroom deals and 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 C-SPAN cameras over to the Department of Education.

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