9th 2009
Deconstructing Arne Duncan and the Release of the D.C. Voucher Program Study

Posted under Education Politics & Federal Government & Research & School Choice & Urban Schools

I’ve pointed out to you the sad story of national education officials ignoring the positive results from the D.C. voucher program as they let the ax fall on opportunity for some very needy kids.

The Wall Street Journal raised serious questions about the complicity of Education Secretary Arne Duncan in hiding the results so Congress could go ahead with shutting down the program. Questioning Duncan directly, the Denver Post‘s David Harsanyi pressed the issue further, finding that the Secretary’s story on one important count didn’t match the record:

When I had the chance to ask Duncan — at a meeting of the Denver Post editorial board on Tuesday — whether he was alerted to this study before Congress eradicated the D.C. program, he offered an unequivocal “no.” He then called the WSJ editorial “fundamentally dishonest” and maintained that no one had even tried to contact him, despite the newspaper’s contention that it did, repeatedly.

When I called the Wall Street Journal, I discovered a different — that is, meticulously sourced and exceedingly convincing — story, including documented e-mail conversations between the author and higher-ups in Duncan’s office. The voucher study — which showed progress compounding yearly — had been around since November and its existence is mandated by law. So at best, Duncan was willfully ignorant. [emphasis added]

Now, Flypaper’s Andy Smarick is warning us not to jump off the conspiracy cliff in ascribing political motives to Arne Duncan concerning when and how the report was released. But even without assuming the worst (or, as some of my friends like to say, putting on the tin foil hat), there are several key issues unanswered.

Smarick writes: “I’d be very surprised if months elapsed between the Secretary’s being made aware of the final results and its public distribution.” Perhaps. But he didn’t need months, when weeks would have sufficed. And final results is a bureaucratic term for the results released officially to the public. What about results in general — final or otherwise?

These questions need to be answered definitively before we let the issue go away:

  • Does the Secretary receive a copy of the preliminary research results several weeks in advance of the public release? If so, there may be questions about his integrity at stake … And the confrontation with Harsanyi over the Journal‘s account fuels fire to those questions
  • Even if Duncan wasn’t aware of the actual results, Harsanyi’s charge remains: Only willful ignorance could have prevented him from noting that the results would be coming very soon — Couldn’t Duncan have directed his subordinates at the Department to release the results early?
  • Since U.S. Senators like Dianne Feinstein expressed interest in knowing, couldn’t Duncan at least have alerted Congress that significant results about the D.C. voucher program would be coming soon?
  • What does it say about the Department if Duncan really did “know nothing”?
  • The only way I see Duncan getting let off the hook is if there’s a hard-and-fast rule within the Department that prevents the Secretary from knowing anything about the study in advance: Does anyone out there know of or have evidence of such a rule?

The issue shouldn’t be dismissed blithely. For the sake of the scholarship students in Washington D.C. and a healthy public debate, it would be good to get to the bottom of this sooner rather than later.


2 Responses to “Deconstructing Arne Duncan and the Release of the D.C. Voucher Program Study”

  1. Bill Evers on 09 Apr 2009 at 7:03 pm #

    The following is from Russ Whitehurst, formerly director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution (I am the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy) and was a colleague of Russ’s, 2007-2009)


    Secretary Duncan Is Not Lying

    Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies
    The Brookings Institution

    April 09, 2009 ­
    The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) within U.S. Department of Education released a study on April 3 of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides up to a $7,500 annual voucher for students from low-income families in the District of Columbia to attend private schools. Notably, the study found that students who won the lottery to receive the limited number of available vouchers had significantly higher reading achievement after three years than students who lost the lottery.
    Yet last month Congress voted to eliminate funding for the program. Columnists for the Wall Street Journal and the Denver Post, accompanied by the blogosphere, have alleged that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sat on the evidence of the program’s success. The WSJ writes that, “… in November preliminary results were presented to a team of advisers who work with the Education Department to produce the annual evaluation. Since Education officials are intimately involved in this process, they had to know what was in this evaluation even as Democrats passed (and Mr. Obama signed) language that ends the program after next year.” The Denver Post questions the Secretary’s denial of having known the results of the study prior to congressional action, asserting that he was, “at best … willfully ignorant.”

    As director of IES through November 2008, I was responsible for the evaluation that is at the center of the controversy. Given the established procedures of IES it is extremely unlikely that Secretary Duncan would have known the results of the study until recently.

    The discussion of preliminary results from the study in November 2008 would have been with technical advisors to the contractor who was carrying out the study. No one in the Department of Education other than a few staff within IES would have been included in that meeting and the results would not have been shared.

    That is as it should be. All IES reports are required by law to go through rigorous scientific peer review under a documented set of processes before being released. “Preliminary results” are just that. The analysis and presentation of data in an IES report very frequently change between the preliminary version and the released version. It would be irresponsible and unlawful for IES to disseminate preliminary findings. Accordingly, it keeps them under very close wraps.

    How does the institute manage to do so? By law, IES reports are not subject to the approval of the secretary or any other office of the Department. They are released on the authority of the director. However, IES is required to provide the secretary and other relevant offices with an advance copy of its reports before they are released to the public. Operationally, when an IES report is approved for release within IES, the pending release is included in the director’s weekly report to the secretary. Two weeks are allowed for briefing the secretary or any other officials in the department who are interested in the report. During my six years as director, there was no occasion in which the secretary or other senior officials were briefed on a report before it was in final form and approved within IES for release. I expect I would have heard had that changed.

    The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 sunsets the Opportunity Scholarship program. It was passed by the House on February 25 and by the Senate on March 10. The IES report would have had to be approved for release and the secretary briefed on it sometime early in this period if the secretary were to be able to alert Congress to the positive findings. It is not plausible that the IES report was approved for release by late February/early March. An annual evaluation report on the program is required by law. There have been 5 previous reports. The reports for the last two years were released in June. The earliest that any prior report has been released was April.

    In short, Secretary Duncan and his senior staff would have learned of the positive results from the evaluation of the DC Scholarship program in the last two or three weeks, which is subsequent to congressional action. There is no basis for the claim that he sat on the evidence or was willfully ignorant of it.

    There is, however, substantial reason to believe that the secretary didn’t want to draw attention to the report. It was released on a Friday, whereas IES stopped releasing reports on Fridays several years ago when an important report just happened to come out on that day and critics accused the agency of trying to bury it. And there was no department press release or press briefing, which typically occur for important reports, including previous annual reports from this evaluation.

    The future of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program is far more important than the contretemps over when the secretary knew what. Many in Congress are on the record that their support of the program in the future would be contingent on findings from the evaluation. Many cited the results from last year’s evaluation, which found no effects on academic achievement, as the basis for voting to terminate the program. Was that a smoke screen to cover their real concerns – separation of church and state, opposition by teachers unions, whatever – or did they really mean that they would be guided by evidence on the program’s effectiveness? The 2009 Appropriations Act provides that funding for the program will end next year UNLESS Congress votes to reauthorize it. There is plenty of time for Congress to hold hearings, deliberate, and make a decision that is informed by the most recent results from the evaluation.

  2. Ed is Watching » More Clarity Doesn’t Give Arne Duncan Free Pass on Voucher Study Release on 10 Apr 2009 at 10:33 am #

    [...] I wrote yesterday with questions about Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s handling of the release of the D.C. [...]

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