Dear Oprah: You Just Visited the Wrong Schools

Oprah Winfrey has plunked down $40 million on a private school in South Africa to offer poor kids there a better education than can be had in their local government schools. When asked why she was investing in students from South Africa rather than, say, South Chicago, Oprah shot back that:

I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city [U.S.] schools that I just stopped going…. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.

Clearly, Oprah has not been visiting the Milwaukee private schools serving low income black and Hispanic students. Having done so recently myself, I can report first hand that those students are so ambitious, motivated, curious, and hungry for learning that they bring joy to the hardest heart and water to the driest eye.

The modern belief that poor urban kids don’t want to learn completely misunderstands the problem. It isn’t the kids. It’s the schools.

Visit independent, parent-chosen schools in America’s inner cities and you will seldom find the disaffection Oprah has apparently seen so often in (presumably) government-run schools. 

And when I say the it’s the schools, what I really mean is: “it’s us.” It’s our fault. If we would only realize that the ideals of public education can best be advanced by a system of universal parental choice, rather than a centrally planned government factory system, we’d see a lot more engaged, energized kids who not only want to go on to college and successful jobs and lives, but who have the educational foundation to do it.

I’ve collected some of the evidence on this point here, for those unfamiliar with it.

“Isolationism”

There’s a mini-buzz in the blogosphere over the concept of isolationism today, since Jonah Goldberg is using the term in the LA Times and Jacob Weisberg is at Slate.

When the President kept referring to the specter of isolationism around this time last year, I wrote this piece in response, noting that

The term “isolationist” didn’t arise until the late nineteenth century, when it was made popular by Alfred Thayer Mahan, an ardent militarist, who used the term to slur opponents of American imperialism. As historian Walter McDougall has pointed out, America’s “vaunted tradition of ‘isolationism’ is no tradition at all, but a dirty word that interventionists, especially since Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies.”

Bizarrely, libertarians, even given our support for unrestricted trade and extremely liberal immigration policies, have been victimized by the epithet.  So in some ways I think Jim Henley put it best when he pointed out that in many contexts today,

“isolationism” means a reluctance to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense. I say, let’s have some of that.

Attorney General Gonzales and Mail Openings

The New York Daily News is reporting that the Bush administration has asserted the legal authority to search and inspect the mail without having to get search warrants. 

There is an “emergency” exception to the warrant requirement.  For example, if some bank robbers decide to take hostages and start making demands, a SWAT team can move in without a warrant.  When the emergency exception is ordinarily relied upon, the search is done out in the open - so the government’s actions are transparent.  The homeowner or business owner knows fairly quickly that agents conducted a search and can bring any abuse to the attention of the news media, the courts, or the legislature.  Those “checks” on police power are not in place with respect to mail openings.  We just don’t know what may be going on at the post office before we get our mail.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) specifically asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about mail openings at a 2005 hearing.  Here’s the exchange:

REP. JEFF FLAKE (R-AZ): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, General Gonzales.

Let me just try to bring this to the real world for a minute here, the real-world scenario, and see if we’re on the same page here. You may be familiar with one of the Fox News analysts, Andrew Napolitano, who wrote an op-ed a while ago. And let me just read a portion of it and get your response to it.

Quote: “The government can now, for the first time in American history, without obtaining the approval of a court, read a person’s mail and prosecute a person on the basis of what is in the mail.” Is that an accurate reflection of the law?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I’m not – I don’t believe it is an accurate reflection of the law. Again, if we’re talking about the exercise of authorities under the Patriot Act, in most cases it does involve the department going to a federal judge and getting permission to use a proposed authority.

REP. FLAKE: I understand in most cases. But is that possible now, for the first time in history, without obtaining the approval of a court, to read a person’s mail and then prosecute the person on the basis of what is in that mail?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: That sounds to me like it would be a search. And I think that you would need probable cause to do that. You would need a warrant to do that, and you’d have to go to a federal judge in those cases, except, I think, in very rare circumstances, if in the event of an emergency. But even then you’d have to go to a judge after the fact and explain what you’ve done. So I don’t think that what he has said is accurate.

REP. FLAKE: But it would be accurate if you say in certain cases you would have to go to the judge after the fact.

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: But those are very rare and extraordinary circumstances. And so –

REP. FLAKE: How many of those circumstances have we had?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I’m not aware of any.

REP. FLAKE: None?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I’m not aware of any.

REP. FLAKE: If there are some, could you get back to my office with that information?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I can certainly look into it.

Source: Hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, April 6, 2005.

I will be blogging about this some more later, but I expect the Senate and House Judiciary Committees will immediately begin to investigate this matter and call Mr. Gonzales in for questioning.

For background on the constitutional record of the Bush administration, read this.

Maria Montessori

The Washington Post had an interesting article the other day about the popularity and success of Montessori schools.  The ideas of Maria Montessori are not a trade secret and they have been around for quite some time.  So … why has the education establishment been slow to adapt?  University of Virginia psychologist Angeline Stoll Lillard has a stinging observation.

The psychologist Lillard was at first skeptical of Montessori’s ideas when she started her research 20 years ago. But she found that a strong body of evidence in developmental psychology supports Montessori’s major conclusions – among them, that there is a close relationship between movement and cognition, that the best learning is active and that order is beneficial for children. …

[Montessori] looked for what worked rather than what fit a theory. “If schooling were evidence-based,” Lillard wrote, “I think all schools would look a lot more like Montessori schools.”

Unfortunately, instead of letting parents match individual children with a variety of schools, including Montessoris, that are tailored to kids’ unique and infinitely varied needs, politicians like the new mayor of Washington obsess over controlling current, hidebound, one-size-fits-all public school systems.  Such tinkering, however, won’t fix education.  It will only put someone new in charge.

Drug War Update

Last week, the feds released their annual “Monitoring the Future” survey on teenage drug use, and – lo and behold – teenage drug use is down. John Walters, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, hailed the findings as proof that Bush’s drug war was going swell (unlike, ahem, that other war of his). Well, in an excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times, Mike Males of the Center on Juevenile and Criminal Justice demonstrates that the “Drug War” isn’t going any better than the “Iraq War.” Drug arrests are skyrocketing, as is the body count from drug overdoses. Even more striking is the fact that middle age drug use is soaring and that it’s soaring primarily among middle class whites. Ongoing tales about lights at the end of tunnels are no more reliable than similar tales about Iraq.

While it should be obvious to any fair-minded observer that our increasingly brutal war on drugs is a losing proposition on all counts, few of us seem to be fair minded observers. So allow me to pose a question to those of you still clinging to this benighted enterprise: Exactly what would it take to convince you that the drug war was causing more harm than good? Is there any bit of data, any hypothetical fact, or anything at all that would cause you to give up the policy ghost? Because if there is not, then we are in the realm of religious belief – and that’s about all that I can find to support this cruel, costly, and counterproductive jihad.

The Final Version of My Latest Paper is Now on SSRN

The 99.6% final version of my latest law review article, Class Action Lawmaking: An Administrative Law Model, is now posted on SSRN (here). The article is forthcoming in the next edition of the Texas Review of Law and Politics. An early draft was posted some months ago, but it has been significantly revised in response to helpful comments at two faculty workshops. Here is the abstract:

This Article considers how courts should interpret federal statutes when the interpretive question affects the scope or availability of class certification. When faced with such a question, many courts are tempted to interpret the statute in a way that enables class certification, enhancing the chance that the parties will settle.

I argue that the debate over this practice can be conceptualized as a debate about delegation. Those who argue that courts act illegitimately when they “adapt” statutes to “fit” the class device assume Congress has delegated courts a narrow range of discretion to promote certification and settlement under federal statutes. By contrast, those who argue courts have great leeway to certify statutory claims, even at the price of “distorting” the statute, assume courts have been delegated a great degree of such discretion.

The Chevron doctrine of administrative law provides an unexpected solution to this debate, if we treat Chevron as a “starting-point” measure of Congress’s intent to delegate authority to “adapt” federal statutes to new circumstances. This proposal is roughly similar to Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s suggestion that Chevron might be treated as a “constitutional starting-point rule” for defining permissible delegations of “dynamic interpretive power.”

My argument, however, is pragmatic rather than constitutional: in the absence of clear information about Congress’s desires in the class context, and in light of the complex trade-offs implicated by class actions, an off-the-rack approximation of Congress’s intent to delegate dynamic interpretive power to courts in the class context is needed. I suggest that Chevron is the best available “starting point” measure, in this pragmatic sense. In other words, pending further instruction from Congress, we might ask courts in the class context to start by “thinking about statutory interpretation and statutory discretion as they would want an agency to think.”

In the process, I show that the obvious objection to using Chevron in this fashion—that federal courts, unlike agencies, are not democratically accountable—doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. Put bluntly, courts interpreting statutes that affect the scope of their power to certify claims exempt themselves from the restraint they demand of agencies. Asking courts to consciously parallel the restraint they expect of agencies therefore reins in courts’ interpretive discretion—promoting, in the process, more democratic control over class action lawmaking.

Incidentally, I found Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s article, Federal Rules of Statutory Interpretation, very helpful. You can access his paper, which I rely on in this latest draft and reference in the abstract, here.