Eduwonk V. Eduwonk: Secrets And RTT

AEI’s Rick Hess is outraged about the lack of immediate transparency around Race to the Top. Secretary Duncan has committed to a transparent competition but the reviewing and judging is happening in secret with the details to be released later.   And like nouveau-populists everywhere Hess is fed up with this Washington double-speak and is not going to take it anymore!   Ed Week’s McNeil is bummed, too.  

First, here’s a prediction:  If the idea that the Obama Administration is giving away billions of dollars through a secret process becomes a theme on talk radio and some of TV’s yell shows then the administration will have to change course on this.  Remember, it was just a few months ago that the President of the United States had to pre-release a speech to schoolchildren because people were worried about indoctrination.    

On the issue, I’m not sure what the Department of Education’s argument for secrecy is, but here’s a good one I see: 

In practice  ”transparent” is not synonymous with contemporaneous.  In other words, a process can be transparent while it is going on or it can be transparent after the fact.  Or it can, of course, also be neither.  The Administration is obviously aiming for post facto transparency here.   And substantively if they release the reviewers’ actual notes, details of the process and any trainings, and obviously the reviewers names, then that’s enough for any congressional oversight and public accountability after the awards are announced.

Hess notes that learning all this after the winners are announced is too late to make a difference on the process.  And he’s right.  But it’s the very idea that there could/should be some public influence if various actors, stakeholders, or interest groups don’t like some aspect of the process that bolsters the administration’s case here.  No one will be happy with this process in its entirety.  Considering the high stakes of the Race to the Top, the oversight and political accountability that exists, and the clear opportunity for transparency after the judging, it’s hard to argue that if there is self-dealing (by the administration or readers) there won’t be consequences.  So this is the best way to insulate the process while it is going on.  Afterwards, let the chips fall where they may.

The counterargument:

This is politically tone-deaf.   It takes one of the administration’s few green shoots right now, education, and turns it into a liability.  It’s pretty easy to take shots at this, as the Hess blog posts show.   Besides it is hard to keep something like this secret anyway so it’s entirely possible that the political hit for not disclosing will be for naught anyway in practice.   

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?   Notes and after the fact information is fine but there is no substitute for real-time information about what is being considered and discussed.    There is also the possibility that the transparency will surface conflicts or issues that might not otherwise have been noticed.  Finally, what really is the downside?  Are people really going to lobby the readers or is this just about avoiding headaches?

You make the call…

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