The election is still more than three months away and a lot can happen. Still, it's hard for Democrats not to feel optimistic. And the Bush Administration appears to be working their way through the stages of grief over the prospect of a Democratic Congress.
They've gotten to stage three: bargaining.
One of the first tasks of a Democratic Congress is to correct the utter failure in the constitutional duty of oversight of the Bush Administration. Oh, where would we start--the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, wiretapping without warrant by the National Security Administration, the use of "signing statements" to let the President pick and choose which laws he obeys, the intimidation of scientists and the censoring of federally-funded scientific research (a favorite of mine), the response to Katrina (another favorite).
Oversight informs Congress's decisions about legislation and funding. Congressional oversight can also be used to punish misconduct by the President. The unfavorable scrutiny that often results from oversight lets voters punish abuse of power and corruption at the ballot box. Finally, oversight provides a deterrent to conduct that would be hard to explain in public.
The prospect of oversight by a Democratic Congress may already be starting to work as a deterrent.
As SusanG at Kos wrote over the weekend, last week won't be one that Margaret Spellings, the Secretary of Education, remembers fondly. Spellings held a press conference last Tuesday with Republican members of Congress to announce a proposed $100 million school voucher program to subsidize private school education for children in underachieving public schools. The superiority of a private school education over a public school education is, of course, Republican dogma.
Embarrassingly for Spellings, four days earlier the Department of Education posted on its web site a research study that concluded that children from similar backgrounds did about as well in public schools as in private schools, and maybe better. The study was posted without a press conference or a press release on a summer Friday afternoon, a favorite tactic of federal departments for releasing anything they hope goes unnoticed. The study did not go unnoticed, however.
That the Department wanted the study to go unnoticed is hardly remarkable. What is remarkable is that the Department released such an apostate study at all.
As I wrote here at the time, Secretary Spellings testified before the Science Committee in late March about math and science education. Everybody asked her about math and science education (we're all for it), so I asked her about a couple of studies that the Department had funded but refused to release, one of which found that students in traditional public schools did better than students in public charter schools. The Department only released the report in response to a Freedom of Information request by the New York Times. Spellings said the Department refused to release the study because the research was flawed, and she didn't want the Department to give its stamp of approval to flawed research. I asked if we could see any documents that the Department generated that described the study's flaws, so scholars in the field could evaluate the research against the Department's criticisms.
After the hearing, I wrote Spellings this polite little letter to remind her of our conversation:
Dear Secretary Spellings,
I am writing to request again the information that I requested of you orally at the hearing of the U. S. House of Representatives Committee on Science on March 30, 2006, entitled "K-12 Science and Math Education Across the Federal Agencies." The information pertains to the decision by the Department of Education not to release publicly two studies sponsored by the Department.
First, in June of 2004, SRI International completed the third part of a study commissioned by the Department to evaluate charter school performance. The study concluded that children in charter schools performed less well in state testing than children attending traditional public schools. The Department's stated reason for not releasing the study was that the report did not meet the scientific or methodological standards demanded by the Department. The study became public as a result of a request by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act.
Second, last year the Department failed to release the report of a study on the education of children for whom English is a second language. The study was conducted with $1 million in funding from the Department, and apparently concluded that bilingual education was more effective in educating children with limited English proficiency that "English only" instruction. I understand that after months of negotiation, the Department has now agreed to relinquish its copyright on the report, and the report will be published by a private publisher, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. I understand from your responses to my questions at the March 30 hearing that the Department's reason for not releasing that study was similar to the stated reason for not releasing the study of charter school performance.
I encourage the Department to maintain rigorous standards of scholarship in the studies commissioned by the Department, and I do not support providing the Department's imprimatur to studies that fall short of those standards. I am concerned, however, by the suspicions of scholars familiar with the studies that the stated reason for not releasing the studies, the lack of scientific rigor, was not the real reason. Those scholars suspect that the real reason was that the conclusions of those two studies were contrary to the Department's policies or were otherwise politically troublesome.
The Department and Congress must rely on research to inform our education policy decisions, and must have confidence that the research is impartial, rather than generated to justify policy or political decisions. The credibility of the Department in applying standards of scholarship in evaluating reports sponsored by the Department is critical. I am requesting, therefore, that the Department provide the memoranda or other documents relied upon in determining that those two studies fell short of the standards of scholarship demanded by the Department, so that scholars in the discipline can evaluate the validity of the Department's criticisms of the reports.
At the March 30 hearing, you agreed to review my request for the documents pertaining to the two studies, as well as applicable law. I encourage you to complete that review with speed. If you do not provide any documents that I am requesting, please state the reasons for not providing those documents. Please provide a citation to any law that you believe prohibits or does not require the public release of any of those documents. If you believe that the law allows but does not require the public release of any such documents, please explain the Department's reason for not providing the documents.
Please provide a copy to Heather Parsons of my staff of any document that the Department releases that I am requesting.
Thank you for your assistance in this matter. I look forward to your response.
Member of Congress
A little more than a month later, I got this reply:
Dear Representative Miller:
I am writing to respond to your request to Secretary Spellings at a recent hearing of the Committee on Science, and your follow-up letter to her dated April17, 2006, requesting two reports and documents pertaining to the two studies from the U.S. Department of Education. Specifically, you asked the Department provide copies of the following: (1) the "third part of a study commissioned by the Department to evaluate charter school performance;" (2) "the report of a study on the education of children for whom English is a second language;" and (3) the "memoranda or other documents relied upon in determining that those two studies fell short of the standards of scholarship demanded by the Department[.]"
Referencing your first request, I have enclosed a copy of the 2004 charter school performance report from SRI International, Evaluation of the Charter Schools Program. Concerning your second request, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates ("Erlbaum") is scheduled to publish that report in the near future. You may wish to contact the publisher directly. Erlbaum is located at 10 Industrial Avenue, Mahwah, New Jersey, and its telephone number is (201) 258-2200. Finally, in reference to your request for "memoranda or other documents," internal, deliberative documents are protected from disclosure by the deliberative process privilege as part of the government decision-making process.
Thank you for your inquiry.
Assistant Secretary for
Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs
Enclosed with the letter was the 126-page study evaluating charter school performance, creating the appearance of responsiveness. Of course, what they provided I didn't ask for, and what I asked for they didn't provide: an explanation of what was wrong with the study, or at least an explanation of why they wouldn't explain what was wrong.
So why did the Department release the study finding that students in private schools did no better than children in public schools? What was different from the earlier study?
One possibility is that the study met the Department's rigorous research standards and the earlier study did not. I mention that possibility out of an overabundance of fairness. No, I don't believe it for a second either.
Okay, let's talk about what probably really happened. Maybe someone at Department of Education released the study without talking with Spellings or thinking about the political implications. In other words, it was released by mistake.
Or maybe someone at the Department of Education realized after the correspondence about the charter school study that if the Department didn't release the report, someone would blow the whistle, and they'd find themselves subpoenaed by the Democratic Congress to explain why they didn't. In other words, they've started bargaining.
I can't wait to see the final stages of grief: depression and acceptance.