Archives: 02/2012

Agriculture and Trade Links

A Brewing Institutional Crisis in Panama

Panama is in turmoil due to the efforts of President Ricardo Martinelli to resurrect a defunct specialized court within the Supreme Court that would allow him to pack that body and possibly pave the way for his reelection.

First, some context: The nine-Justice Panamanian Supreme Court is divided in four specialized courts dealing with specific areas of the law (civil, criminal, administrative and general government business). The first three specialized courts have 3 justices each, while the fourth one (dealing with general government business) is formed by the presidents of each of the three other specialized courts.

There used to be a Fifth Court dealing with constitutional issues. However, in 1999 Congress passed a law that abolished that body. Now, constitutional cases are dealt by the nine-Justice Supreme Court as a whole.

Last year the Supreme Court, whose chief justice is a close associate of Martinelli, ruled that the law abolishing the Fifth Court was illegal. This created a legal vacuum since nobody knows for sure whether that means that the old Fifth Court should be reinstated or a new one should be created.

Martinelli seized on the controversial ruling by the Supreme Court and introduced a bill in Congress that would create a Fifth Court. If approved, the new court would have three new justices (appointed by Martinelli) and would deal with constitutional issues, one of them being the constitutionality of presidential term limits. The Panamanian Constitution currently bars a sitting president from running for a consecutive term. The president has to step out for two terms before running again for office. Many in Panama fear that Martinelli’s ultimate goal with the Fifth Court is to get rid of term limits.

Let’s not forget that a similar ploy was recently used by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua to run for reelection despite the Constitution explicitly barring him from doing it. There, a friendly Supreme Court ruled that presidential term limits were unconstitutional and thus enabled Ortega to run again (and win the election).

Despite enjoying a large majority in Congress, where Martinelli has bought off many lawmakers, the opposition was able to filibuster the bill creating the Fifth Court. However, thanks to the nebulous ruling by the Supreme Court last year, Martinelli is now threatening with appointing the 3 new justices even without a law passed by Congress. A constitutional crisis seems inevitable.

A recent poll published by the daily La Prensa showed that 70 percent of Panamanians regarded Martinelli as “authoritarian” and 73 percent were concerned for the future of democracy their country. Amid strong criticism for his autocratic tendencies, for his attacks against freedom of speech, and for using tax audits to persecute his political opponents, the Fifth Court affair certainly shows that Ricardo Martinelli is the most dangerous man for democracy and rule of law in Central America after Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

Catholic Schools and the Common Good

One of the first things you learn when you start to study the comparative performance of school systems is this: on average, Catholic schools are much more educationally effective and vastly more efficient than state-run schools. And then you learn that their impact goes beyond the three R’s. I wrote a little about these facts a few years ago, while I was with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and my Mackinac friends have resurrected the post for Catholic Schools Week. I’ve appended an excerpt below, but you can read the whole thing here.

When state-run public schooling was first championed in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, it was under the banner of “the common school,” and it was touted more for its predicted social benefits than its impact on mathematical or literary skills. The leading common school reformer of the time, Horace Mann, promised, “Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”

Having experienced more than a century-and-a-half of a vigorously expanding public school system, Americans are no longer quite as sanguine about the institution’s capabilities. Nevertheless, there is still a widespread belief that government schools promote the common good in a way independent private schools never could.

Is that belief justified? Scores of researchers have compared the social characteristics and effects of public and private schooling. They have found little evidence of any public-sector advantage. On the contrary, private schools almost always demonstrate comparable or superior contributions to political tolerance, civic knowledge and civic engagement. One group of private schools stands out as particularly effective in this regard: those run by the Catholic Church.

Sports Authority

Home schooling is the most dynamic and innovative segment of K-12 education. But even with technological advances, co-ops and hybrid schooling, taking on that level of individual responsibility for a child’s education is difficult.

One particularly difficult problem for home school families in Virginia and elsewhere is competitive sports, particularly in high school.

A private non-profit organization, the Virginia High School League, governs high school sports for public schools in Virginia and determines eligibility for participation. Home-school and private-school parents pay taxes for the public schools, but their kids are banned from participating in local high school sports run through the government schools.

For private school kids, that’s not typically a major problem; they have enough students to field teams and schools for their own league. But home-schoolers, especially in rural areas, don’t have those numbers. And that means they are out of luck.

There’s a bill being heard today (HB 947) that would prohibit public schools from joining an association with a blanket ban on home school student participation, and let each school district decide whether to allow them to try out for a team.

The Virginia PTA seems horrified that the home-school rabble might be included, proclaiming that “participation on athletic teams is a privilege that should be reserved for the public school students.” They have told members to call their representatives to say, “public school is your choice and team sports are a privilege you earned and expect them to protect.” Funny, I thought government school were supposed to be open to everyone … we certainly all pay a lot of money for them.

It’s always messy when the government runs things they shouldn’t – there is never a perfect solution – but it does seem odd and unfair for a private organization to ban a segment of Virginia’s children from joining a team in the local public school their parents support with their taxes.

Team sports shouldn’t be run through government schools in the first place, but if they are, they shouldn’t exclude children because their parents have taken full responsibility for their child’s education and shouldered its full cost.

Kashmir Hill Has It Right…

on the Google privacy policy change.

The idea that people should be able to opt out of a company’s privacy policy strikes me as ludicrous.

Plus she embeds a valuable discussion among her Xtranormal friends. Highlight:

“Well, members of Congress don’t send angry letters about privacy issues very often.”

“Oh, well, actually, they do.”

Read the whole thing. Watch the whole thing. And, if you actually care, take some initiative to protect your privacy from Google, a thing you are well-empowered to do by the browser and computer you are using to view this post.