Society and Culture, Education

The Education Secretary’s Secret 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.

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.

That said, 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?

The old saying goes: “people are policy.” In this case, that’s 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.

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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