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RTT and the Emperor's Pants

Yesterday, I noted the import of creating clear, coherent, credible, and transparent processes for governing the Race to the Top (RTT) and Investing in Innovation (i3) funds. Making this task especially vital are the enormous sums of discretionary dollars in play. The stimulus fund set-aside for RTT and i3 alone is almost five times the $1 billion a year for Reading First which, just a few years ago, was regarded as a giant discretionary program. And Reading First's travails were enough to unwind substantial progress that had been made in reading policy.

The Department should be holding itself (and should be held by outsiders) to an unprecedented level of transparency given the resources at stake and the disturbing concentration of influence in a Secretary of Education who has ladled out $100 billion in stimulus funds, has $5 billion in discretionary dollars, and is actively collaborating with the nation's biggest education foundations. Unfortunately, asking hard questions about RTT or i3 (much less making snippy comments about them) is a pretty good way for a state or local official, researcher, provider, or advocate to screw up their career.

After all, state and district officials have their hands out. Non-profits and advocacy groups are partnered with various states, hoping that they're on the Ed Department "fair-haired" list. Academics and researchers want to be known as pleasant and supportive because there's a wealth of contract work about to come down the pike from states and the feds--and the last thing they need is to give any potential clients concerns that this or that researcher might be a loose cannon or out of favor with Duncan's team.

And taking the concern to another level is the quasi-partnership that ED has established with the Gates Foundation on RTT and i3. As I discussed in my 2005 book on philanthropy, With the Best of Intentions, researchers, scholars, and public officials have good reason to, whenever possible, avoid saying anything too negative about major foundations or their handiwork. This "amiable conspiracy of silence" is just smart self-preservation, but it has real costs.

The same protective coloration has now been extended to Duncan's Department of Education. Given that RTT represents more dollars than all of the nation's foundations will spend on K-12 schooling this year, it is unclear whether anyone with firsthand knowledge really has much incentive to publicly scrutinize RTT, i3, and the rest--or to make a fuss if, as it goes, the emperor has forgotten his pants. The problem with such solicitous deference, of course, is that it has the unfortunate effect of leaving important questions unasked, truths unstated, and tensions unexplored.

So, in the weeks ahead, I'm going to strive to provide some of that kind of scrutiny. Not because the ideas behind RTT or i3 are bad. Not because I'm opposed to Duncan's proclaimed goals. Rather, because these programs will only deliver on their promise if they rest on a credible foundation, are guided by an understanding of what Uncle Sam can and should do in our federal system, are designed for the long run, and if the process is able to benefit from observers speaking their piece without fear or favor.

Misguided attempts to harness the power of the federal government for noble ends can leave us worse off than where we started. Ill-conceived or inept efforts, even when well-intended, can distort promising initiatives, poison public opinion, and unwind years of smart, determined effort. For those who wonder, it's this tough love that will inform my writing when I tackle this question on-and-off in the weeks and months ahead.

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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.

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