Secretary Duncan Is Not Lying

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.