January 27 2010

Is ED Afflicted with Transparency Deficit Disorder, Too?

Vicki E. Alger

Apparently health care deliberations aren't the only ones suffering from transparency deficit disorder. Last week 40 states and the District of Columbia applied for a slice of the education department's $4 billion Race-to-the-Top (RTT) pie. Because the program is "unlike anything we have ever done," blogs Education Secretary Arne Duncan, "we enhanced our discretionary grant process to ensure maximum integrity and transparency." Maximum? Really?

The 58 reviewers judging states' RTT applications were selected and vetted by Duncan's staff, attended a one-day training session last Saturday, then returned home with a handful of applications each to score. But Duncan refuses to say who the reviewers are. That refusal is raising eyebrows-not to mention ire-among education experts.

"On the substance, we're talking about $4 billion, doesn't the public have a right to some visibility into the deliberations about how that money is spent just as they do with congressional appropriations?" asks Education Sector founder Andrew Rotherham He's not alone.  

"With so much at stake, it would seem in the department's best interests-and the public's-to disclose who will be scoring the applications," writes Education Week's Michele McNeil. "If they want to run a competition that is beyond reproach, then they should not be afraid to release the names of the judges."

AEI's Rick Hess holds nothing back. "Maybe it's time for the president to roll those C-SPAN cameras over to the Department of Education," he writes. "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." As Hess summed up yesterday, "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." Hess is right.

This isn't the first time Secretary Duncan has been called out for his secrecy. Last year he sparked outrage when it was learned that his department sat on the positive results of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for months while Congress voted to effectively kill the program. See here, here, and here. This past month Duncan was under fire again-this time for delaying the release of Head Start's negative program evaluation. See here, here, and here.

Not one year ago President Obama delivered his first major education address in which he promised that Secretary Duncan "will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars...whether it works." Hopefully the president will outline steps to fulfill that pledge during his State of the Union address tonight.

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