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Accountability Opinion

Of “Transparency” and Credibility

By Rick Hess — February 26, 2010 3 min read
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Word on the street is that 10-15 “finalists” from the first round of Race to the Top (RTT) are going to be announced Monday. The finalists will be feted and invited to D.C. for a chance to prostrate themselves before Department of Education officials and, presumably (though it’s not entirely to clear to this semi-informed observer), the 58 reviewers. That’s hardly the only thing that’s unclear. In fact, for all the overwrought praise for our earnest Secretary of Education’s promises of “maximum integrity and transparency,” I’d venture to say that RTT is actually quite opaque--and in ways likely to cause problems down the road.

After all, the Obama administration is in the midst of a self-proclaimed effort to “take on business as usual” and revolutionize the shape of federal education funding. In the President’s words, he’s hoping to shift federal edu-funding so that “instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform.” At the most basic level, what this entails is shifting federal funds from formulas that distribute dollars based on body counts to competitive grant programs that reward certain kinds of behavior.

Formulas are popular because they’re clear. Each governor and member of Congress knows what they are entitled to and they therefore neutralize the political pressures. Competitive grants are attractive because they reward good behavior--but only so long as they are credible and not seen as a cover for personal agendas.

RTT lacks even modest safeguards because the administration has moved forward with a lack of attention to several crucial elements. The degree to which political appointees were involved in hand-picking reviewers is not clear. Reviewers selected by ED officials have been ceaselessly bombarded through the media with clear signals as to which states those same officials think should win. And despite the fact that they are working with novel criteria that include many obvious tensions, it’s not clear how reviewers are supposed to translate thousands of pages of narrative and vague promises into the intricate point system ED established.

Given the newness and novelty of the programs, the lack of insulation from political appointees, and the advisory nature of the review process, Duncan’s team would be well-advised to be as clear and coherent as possible about how this will work. Otherwise, you wind up in the same territory as Reading First, with its jury-rigged structure that relied on three university centers being asked to judge a menagerie of applications submitted by interested parties in a haphazard process that rested behind a veil of seemingly explicit standards. The novelty of the process meant that it played out unevenly and with judgments that were often hard to justify. To try to avoid undesirable outcomes, ED officials exerted pressure that was deemed inappropriate. This is exactly the same risk that could emerge with RTT. And, whether or not the White House calls over to Duncan to ask him to be a team player and help out embattled Democratic governors in Ohio or elsewhere, the suspicion that such nudging is playing out in the shadows can be worrisome enough.

I’ve been asked what kinds of questions Secretary Duncan would need to answer to alleviate these concerns. Here’s a partial list:

  • What criteria were used to select reviewers?
  • What constituted a conflict of interest in selecting reviewers?
  • What kinds of instructions were given to reviewers?
  • How much weight are the reviewers supposed to accord to the boldness of promises the states make versus the credibility of those promises?
  • What’s the process for resolving situations where winning states get far less money than they asked for?
  • What will constitute states failing to deliver what they promised? What are the consequences?
  • How committed is Secretary Duncan to abiding by the reviewer recommendations?
  • What are the “finalists” expected to say during their dog-and-pony show visit that they haven’t already said in the tens of thousands of words in their applications?

A grant-based regime depends on trust, credibility, and the willingness of losers to accept the outcomes. A failure to address this ahead of time and to instead rely upon good intentions, goodwill, or conviction of one’s rightness is a recipe for disappointment. Unfortunately, I fear the Department of Education’s officials have failed to do the hard but necessary work on this count.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.