Full Disclosure

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AEI edu-wonk Rick Hess went blue in the face in his Education Week blog criticizing Pioneer’s call for an investigation of Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester in the wake of a Channel 5 story showing that Chester accepted free and discounted travel from groups with an interest in issues before him. Rick’s piece leans hard on references to a supposed Salem Witch Hunt (yup, that’s right in the title of his blog) and the piece just goes downhill from there.

Building your case on a Salem Witch Hunt frame is a sure sign of overheated passion. It’s not just people in Salem who shake their heads at the hackneyed reference (as if that great merchant city’s history begins and ends with those singular events). Screaming Witch Hunt! is the province of Euro-intellectuals and lousy playwrights with better taste in women than in literature. Fact is, unlike in Europe where tens of thousands of supposed witches died at the hands of religious cleansers and tens of thousands more Waldensians and other Bible-readers died fleeing their burning villages for the mountains, in America witch hunts never caught on. Nine people dying in Salem is horrible, but hardly executed, if you will, with European flair.

And I’m from Rhode Island. Roger Williams decidedly was “not down with” witch trials, to use the Hessian lingo.

Pioneer’s basic argument, criticized with such passionate, even purple, language by Rick, is that in light of previous excoriations of Commissioner Chester by the Inspector General and a Superior Court judge for ethical and legal lapses, and the Channel 5 news report calling into question travel paid for by interested parties (including vendors with business before the state), we want full disclosure and transparency regarding the trips that were discounted or paid for by outside entities.

Enshrining a fundamental principle of American justice, James Madison wrote in Federalist #10:

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.

Simply stated, Pioneer wants a thorough, unbiased investigation into whether the most basic protocols of good government were followed. Can all involved—Commissioner Chester, vendors, policy shops, and both proponents and opponents of national standards, and critics—agree that basic disclosure and avoidance of conflicts-of-interest are essential to good public policymaking? I certainly hope so.

Look, Rick is a friend with many good ideas about school reform. Pioneer has invited him to discuss his new book in Boston, and that invitation still absolutely stands because he has important things to say, and because we are strong proponents of public discourse and the free exchange of ideas.

But Rick’s blog is simply way off base on many fronts.

First, I don’t know what relationship Rick has with the press, but if he thinks the Massachusetts press aids and “abets” Pioneer’s work, well, he’s got the wrong state. Most every regional Massachusetts newspaper has been critical of Commissioner Chester, the Education Secretary, and the Governor on education because, well, there are lots of things to be critical of (see here and here). For example, nearly every paper in the state reprimanded Secretary Paul Reville and Mitch Chester for the Gloucester charter school fiasco, but several papers and on-line commentators, including the Boston Herald, the Gloucester Times, and members of a left-leaning blog Blue Mass Group called for their resignations (here and here).

So, many folks in Massachusetts weren’t “down with” Chester and Reville’s failure to uphold the public trust. Just ask the state Inspector General and a Superior Court judge. (And, no, Rick, Pioneer hasn’t also infiltrated the IG’s office and the Judicial branch, so, no, they are not working to aid and “abet” us as well.) Both noted that Commissioner Chester “blatantly ignored and violated the law” and lied on a sworn affidavit about his role in a local charter school approval (also here).

Second, Rick’s praise for the “terrific state chief Mitch Chester” is misinformed. A little history may be helpful. It’s ironic for all involved that Pioneer was very supportive of Mitch Chester’s candidacy to become commissioner back in 2007-8, and it was mainly due to advice from expert friends in Washington DC and Ohio, who suggested that notwithstanding a lukewarm view of charter schools and some questionable work on Connecticut’s academic standards in the 1990’s, Mr. Chester would be strong on academic standards and accountability.

Well, it turns out that folks in DC didn’t know what they were talking about (yeah, I know, news flash!). Since becoming commissioner, Chester has supported the introduction of softer, so-called 21st century skills into our high-quality state curriculum.

He has repeatedly refused to implement the state’s U.S. history MCAS exam, which was part of our original education reform law. He refused to do so before the current budget crisis and now says we can’t afford the $2.4 million notwithstanding hundreds of millions in new federal aid.

On accountability, he has supported the halt on school and district audits, replacing a independent school audit office with an anemic one that sits under his control. On charters, his interference in our state charter approval process, once a national model for objectivity and expertise, has been outright embarrassing and, according to the IG and the judge, illegal. As a result, the state’s charter school office has hemorrhaged the expert personnel that helped make it a national point of reference.

But Rick is claiming more. He says that Pioneer is making “ludicrous, destructive” claims, undertaking a “scorched-earth attack”, and “knee-capping” the “terrific” commissioner. And I am especially not “down with that.”

There have been serious ethical lapses according to some pretty unimpeachable sources. On the specifics of Mitch Chester and the MA DOE’s “Travelgate”, here are the basic facts:

– WCVB Channel 5’s Investigative Team ran a story in late November calling attention to the fact that the Massachusetts Education Commissioner (and Ed Department staff) had stacked up a pile of travel vouchers in a period preceding Massachusetts’ adoption of the national standards this summer.

– WCVB contacted Pioneer for comment on that pile of vouchers (50+ pages constitutes a pile in my book), which were paid for by the Gates Foundation, the NGA, the CCSSO, and other in-state vendors and operators. Channel 5 noted that all of these organizations had sought to get Massachusetts to adopt what were then proposed national standards and queried Chester on potential conflict-of-interest or ethical violations.

Common Cause MA (hardly witch hunting partisans) told the news team:

The appearance that there might be a conflict when you accept free or discounted travel from a party, particularly if they have an interest in the outcome of a decision is certainly there.

In Pioneer’s press release, I noted that the Commissioner’s acceptance of free travel from CCSSO and Achieve, Inc. “cast even more doubt on a process that already appeared as if its conclusion was inevitable.” Hardly an odd statement given that Commissioner Chester pledged to review many studies before making a recommendation on the state’s adoption of national standards to the MA Board of Ed, but then went ahead based only on a letter from the Board of Achieve, Inc. Hardly an odd statement when you remind yourself that Governor Patrick sits on Achieve, Inc.’s board. They were decidedly not an objective observer.

The news team also found that private interests paid for 22 additional trips by high-ranking Department of Ed officials in 2009 alone. Some of these may have been, as Rick suggests, everyday training and exploration. But there are also other kinds of trips. Chester’s wife and son joined him for a 10-day trip to China last spring on tickets heavily discounted by a vendor doing business with dozens upon dozens of school districts in Massachusetts. The former Executive Director (and current head of China Program) for Primary Source (the vendor in question) Kathy Ennis, was appointed to a task force on 21st century skills, which Commissioner Chester has embraced and unilaterally integrated in the state’s $146 million MCAS contract. Many of these privately sponsored trips for state officials were first class, with luxury accommodations.

Is it maligning someone’s reputation to call for disclosure of trips supported by interested parties? There is an appearance of conflict, and it is worthy of independent investigation. Basic rules of disclosure were not followed (not in Board of Education meeting minutes, commissioner’s updates, or on the Massachusetts DOE’s website, etc.) As the Lowell Sun accurately noted, “If a legislator had done this, it would be front page news.”

A witch hunt this is not.

There’s a broader point to make. There are more private philanthropic dollars floating around education reform efforts these days than ever before. That’s, in fact, great news, because it means people see opportunities for change. But let’s not suppose that somehow private philanthropic interests, DC-based trade organizations, and private vendors, not mention public officials, are immune to big mistakes in judgment. That’s why we have disclosure. And when we don’t have disclosure, I feel well within my rights as a policy guy to call for it—and vigorously.

So, save me the witch trial metaphor, save me the purple language, and save me from having to defend a call for public disclosure.

Disclosing public officials’ trips doesn’t discourage anyone from traveling or learning from out-of-state experiences. It just lets taxpayers know what’s going on among those public officials who are supposed to be working for them. It’s called the public trust. There isn’t enough of it these days, which is why people continue to hold public service and government at all levels in such low esteem.

Read other of Jim’s education posts at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse.