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Transparency Watch: Secret (For Now) NCLB Waiver Judges

By Michele McNeil — October 25, 2011 2 min read
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In less than three weeks, states will begin turning in their applications for waivers under No Child Left Behind, and then it will be up to a cadre of peer reviewers to help Education Secretary Arne Duncan decide who gets a waiver, and who doesn’t.

Just who these judges are will remain secret, the department says, until the peer review process is pretty much over. That’s how the department operated in the Race to the Top competition, too, when it was worried about undue influence states might put on the judges, whose names were kept secret until the winners were announced.

For the waiver process, department spokeswoman Liz Utrup told me yesterday: “In order to keep the peer review process as fair and consistent as possible, reviewers names will be kept private until on-site peer review is complete.” (UPDATE: The on-site peer review is near the end of the judging process and will involve the peer reviewers coming to D.C. to discuss applications. States won’t be sending teams to D.C., as I had originally written.)

Politics K-12, of course, would make the argument that reviewers’ names should be made public as soon as they’re selected, and that this is very different than Race to the Top (where the names also should have been made public from the get-go).

For one, unlike Race to the Top, this waiver process is not a competition. This is a far more technical process that involves things like differentiated accountability and “n” sizes. What’s more, the department has said it wants to work with all states to get them across the finish line.

Secondly, the department will have far more discretion in deciding who gets a waiver and who doesn’t, as the judges’ comments will only inform Secretary Duncan’s decision. In Race to the Top, the judges essentially made the decision.

Third, Duncan has said this will be a very “transparent,” back-and-forth process with judges being able to ask questions of states—so it seems that to make this process really transparent, you need to know who’s on both ends of that back-and-forth.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the department would build a lot of confidence into the process by letting folks know who will be judging it. For this story, folks told me that the makeup of these panels—the education, experience, and affiliations of the judges—matters a lot to the credibility of the waiver process.

When the growth-model pilot under NCLB—which was largely considered a success—got started in the mid-2000s, the names of the peer reviewers were proudly announced in a department press release. The stakes are probably higher with these waivers, but that doesn’t lessen the need to know as much about the process as possible.

What do you think? Should the names of the peer reviewers be made public before the judging for the waivers starts?