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

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.