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September 14, 2017

Bigger Pies, Better Resource Allocation, or Information? Three Futures for Education Rights Litigation

By Chris Elmendorf & Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from Education Law Prof Blog]

Education is special in the eyes of the law. State constitutions rarely require the government to spend money on anything, let alone to spend it well. Yet virtually every state constitution provides for a system of free public schools, and many courts have treated state governments as having a legally enforceable duty of care with respect to education.

But what exactly does this duty of care entail? One might expect this question to be reasonably well settled, as public-interest lawyers have been litigating education rights cases since the early 1970s. It is not. Two competing visions of the duty of care are playing out today in cases across the country. One holds that the state’s primary responsibility is to provide an ample fiscal “pie” for local school districts. Funding arrangements must ensure that all districts can afford to pay for decent facilities and programs. This vision motivates many of the claims that were filed in response to school-funding cutbacks during the Great Recession. The other vision holds that the state’s primary duty is to allocate efficiently whatever funds it appropriates for education. Informed by conservative critiques of public-sector bloat and interest-group politics, this vision calls on courts to redirect wasteful spending and unfetter local school administrators, but without touching the “political” question of how much to spend. The better-allocation vision undergirds a recent and exhaustively detailed trial court ruling in Connecticut, as well as challenges to teacher-tenure and seniority rules now pending in Minnesota, New York, and New Jersey.

Conservative opponents of bigger-pie litigation have long argued that the empirical evidence of the effect of school spending on student outcomes is too shaky to warrant judicial intervention. Liberal critics of the new teacher-tenure lawsuits have started making precisely analogous arguments in better-allocation cases, with no apparent sense of irony. But no one has asked whether states themselves might bear constitutional responsibility for the lack of reliable information about likely effects of plaintiff-sought reforms.

In a forthcoming law review article, we pose and answer this question, developing a new, information-centric vision for education rights litigation. Under our account, the states’ primary responsibility today is to structure their educational systems so that researchers and policymakers can figure out which interventions or reforms would actually improve the constitutional performance of the school system. Courts uniformly agree that the constitutional function of public schools is to prepare children for a lifetime of productive participation in economic, political, and civic life. But researchers know very little about the effects of educational reforms on adult outcomes—and the states bear much of the blame for this.   

As our article explains, states exercise enormous control over the production of knowledge about education, especially about long-run effects. This control is wielded through the architecture of administrative data systems; through the rules for assigning students, programs, and funding to schools; through the manner in which educational reforms are implemented; and through the terms on which the state provides access to administrative data.

States already possess constitutionally urgent information about the outcomes that schoolchildren realize as adults. This information is scattered across tax, voting, health, welfare, and criminal justice agencies. But, for the most part, state record-keeping systems have not been designed to enable linkage of educational and other records—and record-linkage is necessary to understand the long-run impact of educational reforms. Some states have actually banned the use of critical administrative datasets for research purposes. Likewise, in rolling out educational reforms, states rarely consider whether the rollout will enable credible tests of the reform’s effects. (Typically this requires well-defined “treatment” and “control” groups, which are similar to one another on average.)

Judicial recognition of a state duty of care with respect to the production of knowledge about education wouldn’t turn children into lab rats. States would still have to protect student records from privacy-compromising disclosures, and state officials, not researchers, would continue to set priorities.

But states would no longer be free to ignore how their own decisions affect what can be learned about the long-run effects of the state’s educational policies and programs. At a minimum, states would have to issue and periodically update a plan that identifies barriers to learning about how the state’s educational objectives can be achieved, and that explains what the state intends to do about it. Arbitrary barriers, such as flat prohibitions on the linkage of educational and other administrative records, would be vulnerable to constitutional attack. And in “bigger pie” and “better allocation” litigation, courts would consider not only whether the plaintiffs’ evidence is strong enough to order statewide reforms, but also whether the difficulty of learning about the effects of spending levels or allocative constraints without the cooperation of the state warrants a test of the plaintiff-sought remedy, which would be implemented temporarily in a randomly selected subset of schools or school districts. 

Our informational gloss on the state’s duty of care with respect to education offers a way forward in the many states whose courts have, on separation-of-powers grounds, declined wade into the Stygian swamp of funding and allocative disputes. Courts can address barriers to the production of knowledge about education without touching large-scale questions about how much to spend on education and how to spend it. Whatever else the states may owe to disadvantaged children, at least the states must make it possible to learn whether their efforts to better educate those children are doing any good.

September 8, 2017

School Improvement Hinges on Access to Student Data

By Chris Elmendorf & Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from Education Week]

The state should know lots about those students: their standardized-test scores, whether they voted, their criminal records, their income, etc. The state replies that it does not have this information collected in a manner that is accessible. And, to add insult to injury, the state explains that it would not release the information anyway because of privacy concerns.

You decide to proceed with pre-K in your district regardless, but, so that future researchers can learn something, you ask the state if you can assign pupils to the pre-K class through a random lottery given that there will not be enough spots for everyone. The state refuses. A local education researcher asks if you can work together to at least keep track of key administrative data for the children within and without the program. To do that, you need help from the state, but again the state refuses.

That scenario is neither fanciful nor uncommon. Despite some improvements, many states do not maintain the data in a usable manner that education researchers need, much less do they use program rollouts as a regular opportunity to conduct controlled experiments. On the one hand, this failure makes sense. Organizing and managing administrative data is not costless, especially if privacy concerns are properly taken into account. Furthermore, as a matter of practical politics, not much of a constituency exists for the collection of good data that will yield conclusions many years in the future-a time frame that for most politicians or administrators makes no sense.

At the same time, the failure to generate high-quality data is untenable. Education is by far the biggest expenditure made by state and local governments. The cost of collecting good data and making the information available is not even a rounding error compared with state and local education budgets. It would be one thing if educational researchers were doing well enough with the data they have, but the expert consensus is that they are not. And this is not because there is a lack of researchers or analytic methods. (Indeed, something of a revolution is going on in the social sciences when it comes to the use of administrative data. For example, a much-celebrated recent study by Raj Chetty and colleagues demonstrated that social mobility in the United States depends greatly on where a child grows up, based on careful analysis of years of tax-return data.)

If education research is not to be left behind, states need to devote resources to collecting the data and making those data available to researchers. There are models for doing so. In some Nordic countries, each citizen is given an administrative-record number that is used throughout the government. When a researcher requests data, the government provides the data, but using a different set of numbers to protect privacy. That arrangement has enabled education research that would be difficult or impossible to carry out elsewhere, such as studying the effect of publicly provided day care on labor-market outcomes decades later&-just the question our hypothetical superintendent was hoping to answer.

"If education research is not to be left behind, states need to devote resources to collecting the data and making those data available to researchers."

The policy prescription is clear: States should aim to collect and disseminate first-rate educational data. A good place to start on this project is with the checklist provided by the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign, which emphasizes the record-keeping arrangements needed to track students over time and across administrative databases.

States should also organize themselves so that opportunities for controlled experiments are not squandered. In many cases, states already roll out programmatic changes in pieces; it would not cost much more to do so in a manner that enables credible inferences about the reform's effects.

What if a state refuses to take reasonable steps to assess the effectiveness of its biggest outlay? Can the states be forced into self-reflection? We think the answer is yes.

Virtually every state constitution provides for a system of free public schools. Most states have been sued under those provisions, with the plaintiffs claiming that states are not distributing funds equitably or just not spending an adequate amount. Plaintiffs have a mixed record in such suits, though it should be noted that many states changed their educational system because of the threat of such a lawsuit.

As a result, there are many states where the constitutional provision concerning education has been litigated and in which the courts have held that the state has a legally enforceable "duty of care" with respect to education. We argue in a forthcoming law review article that if this duty of care means anything, it must at least mean that states take reasonable efforts to enable the assessment of how their public education systems are performing. That is, leaving aside whether states must spend more money or spend more fairly, they must at least have some reasonable system in place to assess their compliance with the constitutional command to provide a decent public education.

Especially in states with courts that have proven willing to impose dramatic solutions, such as spending and other mandates, we think that even the threat of litigation should motivate state officials to provide education researchers the data they need. To be clear, our vision of states' duty of care with respect to education wouldn't turn children into lab rats. States would still have to protect student records from privacy-compromising disclosures, and state officials-not researchers-would continue to set priorities. But whatever else the states may owe to disadvantaged children in particular, at least the states must make it possible to learn whether their efforts to better educate those children are doing any good.

 

May 4, 2017

Plenary Session on Being Undocumented at UC in the Trump Era

Maria Blanco of the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center (housed at UC Davis School of Law) is speaking at the 8th Annual University of California International Migration Conference at UC Berkeley on May 13.

The topic is "Being Undocumented at UC in the Trump Era."

Find more information and registration details at haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/undocu2017.

 

 

April 21, 2017

My Testimony before the Assembly Higher Education Committee

Earlier this week, I testified before the California Assembly Higher Education Committee on April 18 in support of Assembly Bill 856, which seeks to diversity faculty and athletic coaches at California universities. These were my remarks.

***

Thank you, Chair and Members.

My name is Rose Cuison Villazor and I am a Professor of Law at UC Davis.

I have been a law professor for eleven years and I have been teaching at UC Davis for five years. 

As the only Filipino American law professor in a public university and, indeed, the entire state of California, I come before you today in support of AB 856, which would increase faculty diversity at California public Universities and Colleges.

I have seen first hand the need to increase diversity amongst faculty at California schools.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, "Faculty, along with staff, serve as an institution's front-line representatives, and in the academic realm, faculty are also the embodiment of authority on campus. Having a diverse faculty ensures that students see people of color in roles of authority and as role models or mentors. Faculty of color are also more likely than other faculty to include content related to diversity in their curricula and to utilize active learning and student-centered teaching techniques."

A diverse faculty helps close achievement gaps, improves campus climate, and creates new curriculum and research.

Having a faculty reflect the student population benefits students' growth and has a positive impact on their learning experience. 

Currently, in states where affirmative action has been banned, including California, universities have introduced new admissions and financial aid strategies based on socioeconomic status.

Similar initiatives can be applied to the hiring process at California schools.

I thank the author for bringing this measure forward and respectfully ask for your AYE vote.

August 20, 2014

Is the University of California Wrong For Admitting More Non-Californians?

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

As the fall semester approaches and college freshmen prepare to start school, there is renewed criticism of the University of California's decision, implemented over the last few years at all or nearly all of the system's campuses, to increase the number and percentage of out-of-state and international college students. The harshest criticism comes from those California students (and their parents) who are finding it increasingly hard to be admitted to UC campuses, especially the most competitive ones like UC Berkeley. Many of these students and parents worry that the University system, motivated by a desire to obtain out-of-state tuition monies, is admitting lesser qualified people from outside California in such a way as to displace more highly qualified California applicants who otherwise might be admitted. Critics feel this is a betrayal of the University's basic purpose, which is to serve the needs of the State. After all, it was California citizens and taxpayers who created the UC and built it up into the best public higher education system in the world. In the space below, I try to debunk some of the myths and misstatements concerning this controversy, and to shed light on the crux of the problem.

The Factual Realities and Myths Underlying the Criticism

Let us begin with the basic factual claims critics often make. Some of these assertions are verifiably true. It is certainly the case that the UC seems intent on yielding more out-of-state and international undergraduate students at its campuses than it did years ago. For example, the system (according to reports in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle) admitted around 3,000 more out-of-state freshmen in 2014 than in 2013, and in 2013 the number was higher than in 2012 by about another 1,000. Moreover, even as the number of admittees from outside the State is increasing, the number of admitted applicants who come from within California is holding steady or, at many campuses, dropping; only three campuses admitted more California residents in spring of 2014 than in 2013 (although some other campuses, like Berkeley, might have admitted additional in-state students off the wait list over the past few months.) And the percentage (as distinguished from the absolute number) of out-of-state and international students is also on the rise; the share of non-Californian undergraduates within the system nearly tripled from the 2007-2008 year (4.6%) to the 2013-2014 year (11.4%). Finally, it seems true that the additional revenue that students from outside California generate explains part of recent trends. Base tuition for in-state students is around $13,000/year, whereas out-of-state and international students are charged more than $35,000, and UC officials have themselves said that the additional revenue is helping the system.

But many of the key factual assertions made by critics are simply false. UC spokespersons have vehemently and repeatedly said that out-of-state admittees are more, not less, qualified (as judged by SAT scores, high school GPAs and other numerical metrics) than in-state admittees. That doesn't mean that every non-Californian who was admitted had higher grades and test scores than every in-state applicant who was denied (because admissions decisions take account of other, non-numerical, qualitative factors like artistic or musical talent, etc.), but it does mean that, in the aggregate, the numerical credential bar is higher for applicants outside the State.

On top of that, non-Californians bring one credential that in-staters generally can't: geographical diversity. Great universities pride themselves on drawing students from (and having name recognition and alumni contacts throughout) the entire nation and world. Such diversity adds to the mix of distinct outlooks on campus, and increases the range of opportunities for folks when they graduate. As UC spokesperson Diane Klein is quoted as saying: "Undergraduate and graduate students from throughout the United States and the world bring fresh perspectives and, in an increasingly interconnected world, help California students better prepare to operate in the global economy." So (even granting that UC exists largely to serve the State) having more non-Californians may offer benefits to the Californians who are there. (The high quality and geographic diversity that out-of-staters bring may partially explain why many states that aren't as large and diverse as California, like Michigan and Virginia, have for decades enrolled high percentages of out-of-state students in their flagship public universities.)

The Key Question of Whether More Non-Californians Means Fewer Californians

But perhaps the biggest mistake that critics make is to assume that having more out-of-state and international students means that fewer in-state applicants can be admitted. Precisely the opposite is often the case. The question isn't whether the number of in-state admittees has been stagnant over time (that may very well be the case because of decreased funding by the State legislature); the question is whether the number of in-state admittees would be smaller still if non-Californians weren't being admitted. Why might admitting non-Californians allow more Californians to be admitted? Because every non-Californian is charged an extra $23,000 in tuition beyond what in-staters are charged. And that money may more than pay for the out-of-stater, creating a surplus that can be used to subsidize an in-stater.

The UC has fixed costs (physical plant, tenured faculty, etc.) that it must pay no matter what, and variable costs (relating to non-tenured faculty and staff, utility expenses, healthcare and security obligations, insurance, etc.) that increase as the number of enrolled students rises. Because of fixed costs, the expense the University incurs, on the margin, in educating additional students may be somewhat smaller than its average cost-per-student. Of course, there may be an upper limit on how many students can fit within a campus. But there are also points on the spectrum where more students could be accommodated without major long-term infrastructural investment, provided we could find money to pay for the marginal (variable) costs of adding them.

For example, suppose that, at some point on the cost curve, the marginal cost of educating an additional student is about $24,000. Enrolling an additional in-state student alone at that point would not be feasible; she would cost UC another $24,000 but she would pay only $13,000 in tuition, yielding a deficit of around $11,000. But if an out-of-state student were enrolled, he would pay $35,000, which is enough to pay for his own marginal cost ($24,000) as well as the deficit created by the additional in-state student. So, in this simplified example, adding an extra out-of-stater increases the aggregate number (and perhaps also the percentage) of non-California enrollees, but does so in such a way as to allow for the enrollment of an additional in-state student who otherwise could not be admitted. Again, the relevant question (even for the critics) shouldn't be how many in-staters and out-of-staters are being enrolled. Instead, it should be how many in-staters could be enrolled if we cut back on out-of-staters. And the answer is likely going to be: fewer than we have now.

Should In-Staters Be Given the Option of Paying Higher Tuition?

So it is clear that admitting persons who are are willing and able to pay a higher tuition can permit the University to accommodate additional persons who pay the lower tuition rate. All of this brings up the question: Why not offer admission to some of the in-state applicants who are currently being denied if these applicants are willing to pay the higher tuition rate? After all, if the problem is simply a lack of revenue (owing largely to reduced allocations from the legislature), why shouldn't we give in-staters (whose parents and ancestors paid for the University) the first option to pay additional tuition, rather than offering those higher-priced slots to non-Californians?

Imagine, for example, that we said to the 500 in-state applicants who were denied admission to UC Berkeley but whose application files were the closest to making the cut (the first "500 out," to use a March Madness Bracketology term): "You can come to Berkeley, but only if you are willing to pay a tuition rate higher than that being charged to other in-state admittees, who are slightly more worthy of admission than you are." How would that go over? I have a few (preliminary) thoughts.

First, some might object to this approach because, as noted earlier, admitting in-staters who are willing to pay more instead of out-of-staters deprives the University of the ultra-high-quality students and geographical diversity that non-California enrollees are currently providing. But put these factors to one side. Imagine that out-of-state enrollees had the same grades and test scores as the "first 500 out" group I described above. And assume that, because California is almost a nation state unto itself, we already had sufficient geographic diversity without importing out-of-staters.

Even then, I suspect many folks would reject the approach I describe simply because it seems wrong to "sell" UC seats to Californians who have the money to pay for them. Among those "first 500 out," only those families who can afford the higher tuition would be able to accept the offer, such that ability to pay would formally and openly become a criterion of admission. And that is in conflict with the notion that access to a slot in the UC is supposed to be based on your talent, your hard work and your performance, not on your parents' bank account. (Charging out-of-staters higher tuition doesn't quite raise this conflict, because their higher tuition is justified not by their lesser qualifications but rather by their lack of investment in the system-a perfectly reasonable factor to use in setting tuition-and thus need not be thought of as "selling" seats to lesser qualified folks the way charging more to some in-state enrollees than to other in-staters, based on the strength of their admissions files, would.)

Notice that there are some public areas, such as toll roads and (now) security lines at airports, where we have allowed people to gain special access if they are willing and able to pay for it. But we may tolerate such commodification in these settings because we don't think of allocating resources in these arenas as involving a meritocratic assessment the way we conceive of college admissions. We also don't think of roads and airports as gateways to economic mobility the way higher education has been billed. As a result, letting people buy their way out of car traffic and long boarding lines doesn't require that we confront-and grapple with the inaccuracy of-deeply held and desirable societal values such as the notion that college ought to be equally available to anyone who has the talent and work ethic to pursue it.

A generation ago, Guido Calabresi (who was a professor and then Dean of Yale Law School and who now is a federal appellate Judge) and Phillip Bobbit (a law professor at The University of Texas School of Law) wrote a book called "Tragic Choices," in which they discussed how difficult it is for society to move from a bureaucratic or professionalized allocation of scarce resources (the way university admissions typically operate) to a market-based approach, when doing so starkly exposes the frailty or falsity of important societal ideals (like equal educational access). We all know that at some important level family wealth makes access to college easier (and lack of wealth makes college for many quite difficult), but explicitly selling off UC slots to wealthy in-staters would require us to confront unpleasant truths in a way that we may not simply be able to handle.

Private universities can (and sometimes do) take a student's ability to pay into account at the admissions stage, and many such universities do admit less qualified yet wealthy applicants. But these institutions get to make their decisions outside the public view. Importantly, because of transparency requirements concerning public college admissions and tuition-setting processes (which reflect another deeply held societal norm-that public institution operations should be visible), there is no easy way to sell UC seats without everybody seeing exactly what is being done. That may be why (as far as I am aware) no high-level policy-makers in California have seriously floated the approach I discuss here.

Notice also that selling off some UC seats to wealthy in-staters might allow significant numbers of additional poor or middle class Californians to attend (so long as the sales price exceeds the marginal cost of educating the wealthy student.) Indeed, one could imagine a scenario in which UC seats would be auctioned so that a few mega-wealthy but less qualified applicants would end up subsidizing large numbers of lower or middle class enrollees. So if our focus were merely on increasing the absolute number of highly qualified lower or middle class Californians who could be accommodated within UC, a regime in which the University sold or auctioned off seats might have some upside. But that regime would do major damage to important societal ideals.

Finally, notice that these tradeoffs between the accomplishment of pragmatic goals and the preservation of (sometimes unrealistic but nonetheless attractive) societal values are not always static. During the Civil War, for example, draftees were able to buy their way out of military service by hiring people to take their places. Today, we would (rightly) find such a practice abhorrent; we would not permit it because it would expose too starkly the (persistent) reality that it is the poor who are ultimately forced (by economic distress) to bear the brunt of fighting our wars. In suggesting that things change over time, I am not predicting that UC seats will be formally commercialized anytime soon. But I will point out that many folks, myself included, did not fully foresee all the changes in public higher education funding (especially as to professional schools) that have taken place over the last two decades. And I could imagine ways of possibly moving toward the approach I describe above without seeming to sell seats so explicitly-for example, charging all in-state admittees a higher tuition but giving all but the last 500 admitted a "merit" scholarship so that the net price for almost everyone remains unchanged. Indeed, many public law schools-whose state subsidies were cut earlier and more deeply than those at the corresponding public undergraduate institutions-have moved to this kind of model. Some public colleges may end up following suit to address their revenue problems, even though many of us would favor restoration of legislative funding even more. So never say never.

May 10, 2014

How the Biggest Supreme Court Victory for Affirmative Action a Decade Ago Contributed to the Defeat for Affirmative Action Last Month in the Schuette Case

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

When the Supreme Court in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action upheld the Michigan state constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action (known as Proposal 2) a few weeks ago by a 6-2 vote, the overall message that emerged from the decision seemed sensible enough: While the federal Constitution permits states, under certain circumstances, to make limited use of race in allocating government benefits, nothing in the Constitution requires states to do so, and a decision by the people of a state to prohibit all race-based affirmative action preferences is permissible.

The Seattle Line of Cases on Which the Challengers to Proposal 2 Relied, Unsuccessfully

The problem with this straightforward message is that an earlier line of Supreme Court cases, running from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, held that while race-conscious programs may not be required, neither can they be terminated in certain problematic ways. The key decision in this line of authority is the intuitively attractive yet controversial and somewhat confounding 1982 ruling in Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1. In order to cure widespread de facto racial segregation in Seattle-area schools, Seattle School District No. 1 adopted a voluntary integration plan that extensively used race-based pupil reassignment and busing to eliminate one-race schools. The Seattle program prompted the people of Washington to enact Initiative 350, a statewide measure that barred local school districts throughout Washington from reassigning or busing for the purpose of racial integration, but continued to permit local districts to reassign or bus for all other educationally valid reasons.

By a 5-4 vote, the Court struck down the plebiscite. The Court declined to rest its holding on a finding of invidious racist intent on the part of the electorate. Instead, the Court invalidated Initiative 350 because the measure singled out racial busing-a program of particular importance to racial minorities-and moved this issue from the control of local decision-making bodies to central management at the statewide level, where minorities were less likely to enjoy democratic success. This selective and unfavorable treatment of public programs that were distinctively beneficial to minorities, the Court said, denied such minorities the equal protection right to "full participation in the political life of the community."

In the Seattle line of cases, the Supreme Court laid out a two-pronged test: First, a challenger must show that the law in question is "racial" or "race-based" in "character," in that it singles out for special treatment issues that are particularly associated with minority interests. Second, the challenger must show that the law imposes an unfair political process burden with regard to these "minority issues" by entrenching their unfavorable resolution. (Mere repeal by the very body that had adopted a policy benefitting minorities would not be problematic.)

The challengers to Proposal 2 in Michigan relied directly on this reasoning. First, they argued, Proposal 2 was racial in character in that it dealt specially with an issue-race-based affirmative action-that is of distinctive interest and benefit to racial minorities. Second, Proposal 2 dealt with this racial issue by entrenching a policy that was unfavorable to minorities at a level of government-the state constitution-where minorities are less likely to succeed than they are at lower levels, such as local government or university administration. The argument was that although Michigan may be free to repeal affirmative action programs, it cannot repeal such programs at a level higher than the one at which they were initially adopted, just as the State of Washington could not repeal racial busing at the statewide level, rather than the local level.

How the Justices Dealt With Seattle

In turning away this challenge, Justices Scalia and Thomas acknowledged that the Seattle case controlled, but concluded that it should be overruled. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor (who dissented in the Court's outcome) likewise thought Seattle governed, but they would preserve and apply Seattle, and would have struck down Proposal 2. (Justice Breyer distinguished Seattle on rather technical grounds, and Justice Kagan did not participate.)

In an important opinion that many view as the pivotal one in the case, Justice Kennedy, joined by two other Justices, concluded that the Seattle case may have been correctly decided, but that it did not govern the Proposal 2 matter. According to Justice Kennedy, Initiative 350 in Seattle was bad because it prevented the Seattle School District from dealing with a racial segregation problem to which the government itself had contributed. As Justice Kennedy put the point: "The Seattle Court, accepting the validity of the school board's busing remedy as a predicate to its analysis of the constitutional question, found that the State's disapproval of the [local] school board's busing remedy was an aggravation of the very racial injury in which the State itself was complicit."

Justice Kennedy disavowed any broader reading of the Seattle ruling, and in particular declined to accept the two-part analytic framework that the Court purported to apply in that case. As Justice Kennedy wrote:

The Seattle Court . . . establish[ed] a new and far-reaching rationale. Seattle stated that where a government policy "inures primarily to the benefit of the minority" and "minorities . . . consider" the policy to be "'in their interest,'" then any state action that "place[s] effective decisionmaking authority over" that policy "at a different level of government" must be reviewed under strict scrutiny. In essence, according to the broad reading of Seattle, any state action with a "racial focus" that makes it "more difficult for certain racial minorities than for other groups" to "achieve legislation that is in their interest" is subject to strict scrutiny. . . . And that reading must be rejected.

As Justice Scalia pointedly observed, Justice Kennedy's recharacterization of Seattle has serious problems:

[Justice Kennedy's opinion] reinterprets [Seattle] beyond recognition. . . . As for Seattle, what was really going on, according to [Justice Kennedy], was that Initiative 350 had the consequence (if not the purpose) of preserving the harms effected by prior de jure segregation. . . . [T]his describes what our opinion in Seattle might have been, but assuredly not what it was. The opinion assumes throughout that Seattle's schools suffered at most from de facto segregation, . . . that is, segregation not the "product . . . of state action but of private choices," having no "constitutional implications."

(As an aside, I find it somewhat ironic that Justice Scalia criticizes Justice Kennedy's manipulation of precedent here. Although I agree with him that Justice Kennedy does not adequately engage, but rather hollows out, Seattle, the writing that Justice Kennedy's opinion reminds me of most is Justice Scalia's own opinion in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, the 1990 religious freedom case in which Justice Scalia guts but does not forthrightly overrule old free exercise cases.)

The Post-Seattle Cases That Eclipsed Seattle's Essence

So if Justice Kennedy's (re)reading of Seattle is less than convincing, is there a way to justify his bottom line? For me, the best defense of the outcome in Schuette comes not from creative interpretations of Seattle, but from judicial and societal developments that have emerged after Seattle was decided. As Professor Evan Caminker and I have suggested in academic writings, the argument (whether one finds it convincing or not) would be that elimination of affirmative action programs today does not as clearly disadvantage racial minorities as did the Seattle initiative. Modern affirmative action programs are double-edged-Proposal 2 backers would argue-because such programs inflict stigmatic harm on minorities and impose tangible disadvantages on certain minority groups, even as the programs attempt to confer tangible benefits on some minority groups. This argument challenges, as overly simplistic, the notion that the programs terminated by the Proposal 2 "inure[ ] primarily to the benefit of the minority."

This argument would build on more recent Supreme Court cases that assuredly support such an ambivalent characterization of affirmative action programs. Over the past two-plus decades, City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. and its progeny have justified strict scrutiny for purportedly "benign" race-conscious programs in part through renewed emphasis on certain costs that affirmative action programs threaten to impose on minorities (whether uniquely or along with others). According to the Court, such programs threaten to, among other things, embrace and "foster harmful and divisive stereotypes," which might "balkanize us into competing racial factions."

And this is precisely the basis on which Justice Kennedy declines to apply the Seattle framework. He reminds:

In cautioning against "impermissible racial stereotypes," this Court has rejected the assumption that "members of the same racial group-regardless of their age, education, economic status, or the community in which they live-think alike, share the same political interests, and will prefer the same candidates at the polls." . . . It cannot be entertained as a serious proposition that all individuals of the same race think alike. Yet that proposition would be a necessary beginning point were the Seattle formulation to control. . . .

Let me be clear: the suggestion that contemporary affirmative action programs do not primarily benefit racial minorities cannot easily be squared with the holding of Seattle (which is why I think Justice Scalia was correct that either Seattle or Proposal 2 had to be rejected). Initiative 350 eradicated voluntary racial busing-a race-conscious affirmative action program that, in its day, was extremely controversial, as both the majority and dissent in the Seattle case recognized. Racial busing imposed both practical and emotional costs on African American schoolchildren, and it generated interracial divisiveness and even hostility. So modern affirmative action is not easily distinguished from the programs involved in Seattle.

But, again, Seattle's judicial attitude in this respect has been eclipsed by more recent cases expressing much more skepticism about race-based affirmative action. The Seattle analysis may simply not survive the more recent cases, and if this is true the Court should have said Seattle is no longer good law, rather than manipulate the 1982 ruling in inventive but unpersuasive ways.

An Unlikely Contributor to Seattle's Demise: Grutter v. Bollinger

No one should be surprised that cases from the last 25 years like Croson (along with Adarand Constructors v. Pena, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, among others)-all of which have made it considerably harder for states to engage in affirmative action-are in considerable tension with, and have effectively undermined, Seattle. What is surprising is that the single biggest judicial victory for affirmative action-the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case in which a 5-4 Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School's race-based affirmative action program-also might have (unwittingly) undermined Seattle. Indeed, Seattle's demise may have been baked into the very cake of Grutter's analysis.

To see this, we need shift focus from the alleged costs of affirmative action to its benefits. Justice O'Connor's reasoning upholding the Michigan Law School's affirmative action policy in Grutter-and the larger diversity justification trend of which Grutter is an example-emphasizes the advantages affirmative action creates for non-minorities, and in so doing erodes the idea that affirmative action is especially beneficial for underrepresented groups. As a pair of law professors observed years before Grutter, diversity is an appealing justification that may "enable an educational affirmative action program to pass constitutional muster because democratic and dialogic educational benefits accrue to all students" (emphasis added). And hear the words of Justice O'Connor in Grutter, defending the Michigan Law School plan without regard to whether it helps minorities in particular:

The[] benefits [of diversity] are 'important and laudable, because 'classroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting' when the students have 'the greatest possible variety of backgrounds.' . . . The Law School's claim of a compelling interest is further bolstered by its amici, who point to the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity. . . . In addition to the expert studies and reports entered into evidence at trial, numerous studies show that student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, and "better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals." . . . These benefits are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints. . . . What is more, high-ranking retired officers and civilian leaders of the United States military assert that, "[b]ased on [their] decades of experience," a "highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps . . . is essential to the military's ability to fulfill its principle mission to provide national security." . . . [And] [i]n order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.

It is perfectly understandable that a "win-win" rationale for race-based affirmative action (that emphasizes how such programs benefit everyone) would be attractive, in both legislative and judicial arenas. But if affirmative action is styled in these terms only, then the Court could naturally think that the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action-the entire polity-should be empowered to decide whether they think the benefits outweigh the costs. Proposal 2 and measures like it are no longer as easily viewed as majorities cutting off programs that help minorities, since the elimination of affirmative action (on this view) hurts majorities as well.

Lest I be misunderstood, I should be clear that I do embrace the diversity rationale. But I wish it hadn't come about as a substitute for-as opposed to a supplement to-a remedial rationale that highlights the distinctive importance of access for certain minority racial groups. In the Croson ruling from a quarter century ago (involving a preference awarded to minority contractors in Richmond), the Court sent the message that the goal of remedying past discrimination was not one on which government should be able to act easily without detailed findings as to exactly what discrimination occurred, when, and by whom. No one denied that there had been overwhelming, pervasive, and persistent societal discrimination against African Americans in Richmond for generations. Yet the main opinion in Croson said, in dismissing the relevance of this history: "It is sheer speculation how many minority firms there would be [today] absent past societal discrimination." This is true, but to deny government officials the ability to redress past discrimination altogether, simply because the enormity of that task creates uncertainty about whether any proposed remedy is perfectly calibrated to the wrong, creates a perverse situation. The greater the past injustices, the more powerless the government is today to deal with their effects, which are undeniably real and lingering, but inevitably somewhat fuzzy in their particulars.

It is for this reason that the goal of remedying past discrimination has largely been abandoned as a legal justification for affirmative action programs, at least in the higher education setting, the area where debate remains most lively. Instead, diversity of the student body as a pedagogical asset is (understandably) the primary interest that universities assert (as they did in Grutter) to defend race-based programs. Again, I do not disagree with the idea that diversity can be a compelling interest. But I do think that most defenders of affirmative action, were they completely honest, would say that the remedial justification, especially in the case of African Americans, is the most natural, obvious, and compelling reason to maintain race-based programs. And this instinct explains why defenders of affirmative action generally believe that such programs are distinctively helpful to minorities, the very premise of the Seattle ruling that Justice Kennedy thinks cannot be acknowledged by government.

September 13, 2013

Precisely How Much Academic Freedom Should (Does) the First Amendment Afford to Professors and Teachers at Public Schools?

Co-authored with Alan Brownstein. Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In the space below, we analyze an important and interesting decision, Demers v. Austin, involving the First Amendment academic-freedom rights of public school and university faculty members that was handed down last week by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  We are quite sympathetic to the thrust of the Ninth Circuit ruling, but we think that a more concrete and categorical framework for resolving academic freedom disputes needs to be fashioned, lest public schools and their faculties be embroiled in a great deal of time- and money-consuming litigation that will generate inconsistent and unpredictable results.

Some Background on the Demers Case

As is relevant here, the facts of the Demers case are pretty straightforward.  David Demers is a tenured member of the faculty at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, a large, public, research-oriented university located in Pullman, Washington.  While serving on a university committee charged with exploring possible changes to the way in which the Murrow College was organized and the way it should relate to other units of the University, Demers wrote and distributed a document called "The Plan."  The Plan was Demers's two-page blueprint for dealing with some of these issues of organizational structure and funding (and some other matters too).  Demers did not distribute The Plan to other members of the committee on which he served, but he did send The Plan to high-level administrators at Washington State, as well as to members of the media and others.  After suffering what he claimed were adverse employment actions, Demers brought suit against various members of the Washington State administrative hierarchy alleging that they had retaliated against him, in violation of his First Amendment rights, for distributing The Plan and the ideas contained in it.

The defendants denied that any action they ever took against Demers was in retaliation for his having distributed The Plan. They also argued that, in any event, The Plan was not protected speech under Supreme Court doctrine because it was written and circulated "pursuant to Demers's official duties."  The trial court ruled in the University's favor. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court's decision, at least in part.

The Ninth Circuit's Decision That Garcetti Does Not Apply

The three Judges on the Ninth Circuit panel agreed with the University that "The Plan" was undertaken pursuant to Demers's official duties (even though he tried to characterize it as something he wrote and circulated in his private-person capacity) because it addressed much of the subject matter of the University committee on which he served, and because he sent it to, among others, University administrators who might have been able to act on it.  But the Ninth Circuit then definitively held that not all things that a public school academic employee writes and distributes in connection with his official duties are without First Amendment protection. In particular, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the complete-deference-to-the-government standard of Garcetti v. Ceballos-a 2006 United States Supreme Court decision-does not apply in the setting of public employees who are teachers and scholars.

Garcetti involved a memorandum written and publicly disseminated by a deputy district attorney alleging that a police search warrant affidavit contained problematic falsehoods and misrepresentations.  When higher-ups in the DA's office seemed to punish him for blowing the whistle in this way, he filed suit contending that he had been the victim of retaliation for his comments, in violation of the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court held that "when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline."

The Ninth Circuit in Demers held, building on language in some of the opinions in Garcetti and other cases discussing "academic freedom," that the Garcetti framework does not apply to "speech related to scholarship or teaching."  Instead, according to the panel, teaching and academic writing that are performed pursuant to the official duties of a teacher and professor should be governed by the two-part balancing test laid out by the Supreme Court in the pre-Garcetti case of Pickering v. Board of Education.  Under that test, the employee must show first that his or her speech addressed matters of public concern.  If this requirement is satisfied, then the employee's speech is protected from punishment if the employee's interest "in commenting outweighs the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees."

Our Evaluation of the Ninth Circuit's Course of Action

We well understand why the Ninth Circuit decided not to apply the Garcetti approach to the university-professor setting across the board.  But we are troubled by the indeterminate, ad-hoc character of the Pickering balancing test, and we think that more categorical boundaries need to be identified in order to provide an appropriate structure for the litigation between schools and their academic employees that will likely ensue once Garcetti is found not to govern these disputes.

Let us begin by explaining why we think there is a strong case to be made that university professors deserve First Amendment protection for at least some of what they say and do, even when they do it on the government's dime and pursuant to their public-employment duties. It is always dangerous to identify certain classes of public employees who should enjoy more free speech rights than others, but we think that a distinctive protection for professors can be derived from a functional analysis of the jobs that universities are supposed to play in modern society.  We focus on two functions, in particular:

First, many universities play a unique role in our society in pressing beyond accepted wisdom to critique and expand our knowledge of the world.  Universities are committed to certain methodological principles, but so long as research is done within that methodological framework-which requires, among other things, comparison of theory to empirically verifiable phenomenon, rigorous logic, and the careful separation of premises from conclusions and correlations from causes, and attention and responses to counterarguments that have been made or are likely to be made against any particular thesis-universities are committed to going wherever the search for truth leads.

Second, universities serve as an independent source of values and authority and as such they operate as a check on government power-a function that is comparable to the ways in which the press or organized religion can serve as a check on government abuses or mistakes. University academics have blown the whistle on many instances of government error or overreach.  The difficulty with applying this argument to public universities, however, is that we would be asking the government to fund a check on its own authority. But the idea is not implausible. The basic notion is, after all, intrinsic to all the separation of powers; the legislature funds the courts, for example, which themselves serve as a check on legislative authority.

For these reasons (which largely explain some of the stray Supreme Court language, extolling the virtues of academic freedom, on which the Ninth Circuit relied in rejecting the applicability of Garcetti), we see potential room to carve out special protections for academic speech. But if a functional analysis helps make the case for special protections for university scholars, it also substantially undercuts the claim for academic freedom by elementary- and high-school teachers (which the Ninth Circuit also recognized albeit in dicta.)  Elementary and middle schools, of course, serve different purposes than universities.   The range of stakeholders is broader. More importantly, public-school education involves a mixture of values and cultural inculcation-that is, teaching children what society wants and needs them to accept-as well as the development in students of intellectual maturity, independence, and the ability to think for themselves.  And there is no consensus (the way that there might be a consensus on the purposes of research universities) on how that mix should work. As a result, there is a much shakier foundation for judicial review. And simply substituting judges' opinions on pedagogical issues for those of school boards or administrators seems troubling in principle and chaotic in practice.

Relatedly, elementary- and high-school teachers are not in the business of generating new knowledge; it's not part of their function. As a result, there is no functional need to promote free inquiry in the performance of their jobs. In a similar vein, high schools are not intended to serve as sources of values that serve a checking function on government.  And finally, operating the public schools is a traditional local governmental function. Community interests, values, and needs may differ by location. Democracy is responsive to local differences and concerns. First Amendment doctrine might have the tendency to universalize, homogenize, and nationalize public-school curricula and pedagogical decisions.

Because universities are so different from elementary and high schools in this regard, we think that the Ninth Circuit should probably have limited its holding concerning Garcetti's applicability (or non-applicability) to the research-university setting.  Even though the Ninth Circuit observed that the Pickering test must be attentive to context, we can foresee much mischief if an ad-hoc balancing test like Pickering's leads to a flood of lawsuits brought by elementary-school and high-school teachers who object to the pedagogical decisions made by principals and local school boards on first amendment grounds.

And even within the realm of the university, we wonder whether the Pickering formula is too open-ended, and likely to produce costly litigation that is so fact-specific that it cannot be resolved short of full-blown and time-consuming trials.  The Ninth Circuit does say that some deference to universities is owed in some settings, but not all lower courts will be clear about how much deference to afford, and free-speech review involving tests that demand indeterminate balancing may be an invitation to constitutional litigation by every scholar who disagrees with the evaluation of his or her teaching or scholarship.

A more categorical approach is greatly preferable. Various substantive decisions, as long as they are clearly communicated to the faculty so as to avoid any notice/due process problems, should be beyond the scope of constitutional review. (State legislatures or public universities may elect to subject these decisions to judicial review, but the Constitution does not require that they do so. That way, if review becomes problematic and unreasonably costly, it can be modified without changing constitutional doctrine.)

For example, universities should be free to determine their curricula, and also be free to prescribe precisely what particular classes should cover. Professors can be required to teach assigned classes, notwithstanding their subject-matter preferences. Universities can determine classroom hours, etc. If an economics professor decides instead to write literary criticism, the department can reject his work as unacceptable within the discipline in which he was hired to teach. The Supreme Court case of Arkansas Public Television Comm. v. Forbes suggests that judicial review under the free speech clause is inappropriate when government engages in functions that require the exercise of substantial editorial discretion.

Clearly, that reasoning applies to many content-neutral and content-discriminatory university decisions. And even a fair bit of viewpoint discrimination may be permissible. For example, to our minds it does not necessarily violate the First Amendment for a university to require balanced teaching on controversial subjects in the classroom, even if a professor would have a preference to be more polemical.

In the space of this essay, we cannot, of course, construct all the categories we think should be identified to guide and reform otherwise standardless judicial balancing, but we hope that Demers is the first step in the direction of that enterprise by lower courts.

 

June 25, 2013

Affirmative Action: The Door's Still Open

On Monday, the Supreme Court opted against a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of the University of Texas' race-based college admissions program and instead sent the case back to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for a closer look at the university's policy. Many will view the decision as a punt. But as football fans know, punts are often important plays in a game. And proponents of race-based affirmative action have every reason to see this play as working in their favor.

Affirmative action has tended to divide the court in consistent ways. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas (and, based on more general things they have said, likely also Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., though these two did not tip their hands Monday) think that race consciousness is not a constitutionally permissible way to assemble a minimally diverse student body.

Other justices, especially Ruth Bader Ginsburg but also probably Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, think universities should be allowed significant latitude to consider race to promote diversity, provided the schools are acting in ways that assist underrepresented racial minorities.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote Monday's ruling and whose views have held sway in recent affirmative action cases, has staked out an in-between space defined by a fundamental distrust of — but not an outright prohibition on — schools' use of race.

So why should universities feel comfortable about being confined to Kennedy's middle-ground territory? Because Kennedy could have moved into the ranks of the more conservative justices and adopted a rigid prohibition, but chose not to.

Writing for the majority, Kennedy expressed his long-standing view that "strict scrutiny" must be applied to any university's use of race. (Indeed, he chided the 5th Circuit precisely because it deferred to the university's judgment and failed to undertake an independent inquiry into whether the school had adequate justification for using race.)

And he added that a reviewing court "must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity." By this, Kennedy was referring to the University of Texas' race-neutral Top 10 Percentage Plan (wherein the top 10% of each Texas high school is guaranteed admission regardless of standardized test scores or other metrics) that was already generating some diversity at the university. But, importantly, he did not require (or even come close to requiring) that all colleges try such percentage plans before adopting race-based programs.

Although Kennedy's "almost never" approach might seem analytically similar to the "colorblind" approach of more conservative justices, what counts most in the real world of affirmative action is the court's bottom-line answer to the question of whether the use of race is categorically forbidden. In this setting, a door for affirmative action that is slightly ajar is closer to being wide open than it is to being slammed shut; if the door is cracked at all, universities can maintain race-based programs. As the line from "The Princess Bride" goes, "There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead."

Kennedy's stance has been that, although race consciousness is very hard to justify, it is not completely improper, and nothing in Monday's decision departs from that position. What this means practically is that most universities are still not prohibited from considering race as part of their admissions criteria. There is an exception, of course, in states that have passed laws prohibiting race as a criterion, such as California's Proposition 209.

In most states (and at private schools) though, we're likely to see universities continue to do what they've been doing. They will simply be careful to justify doing so in the precise terms Kennedy seems to want.

Of course, whether schools are truly complying with the letter or even the spirit of Kennedy's vision is another matter. Any justice saying "rarely but not never" faces the difficulty of crafting language that articulates precisely what is allowed and what is forbidden.

Kennedy tries by saying race consciousness must be "necessary" and "narrowly tailored" to the goal of diversity, but these words are inevitably susceptible to broader and narrower interpretations, especially because Kennedy makes clear that the proper understanding of these terms depends on context. Indeed, the fuzziness of this language enabled a wide range of justices (including Alito, Breyer and Sotomayor) to join Kennedy's opinion, even if they don't all agree on precisely what the standard means in every application.

As a result, universities — even those acting in good faith — can't know precisely where the line is, and thus can operate somewhat aggressively, adopting a reading of Kennedy's yardstick that, while debatable, permits them to continue to consider race in admissions decisions. And any challengers will have to take on the specific policy of each school, one at a time. This will remain true even if the 5th Circuit, on remand, strikes down the University of Texas' plan.

For good or ill, there is often a gap between what the law requires in the abstract and what the law means on the ground. And this gap may be wider the less absolute the governing legal principle is. That is one reason why some judicial umpires, most notably Scalia, prefer bright-line rules to case-by-case tests.

Cross-posted from The Los Angeles Times.

March 30, 2013

Imploring the Ivy League to Attend to Rural Strivers

One of the most e-mailed items in the New York Times for the past day or so has been Claire Vaye Watkins "The Ivy League Was Another Planet." (The alternative headline is "Elite Colleges Are As Foreign as Mars.") In her op-ed, Watkins recounts her journey from nonmetropolitan Pahrump, Nevada to college at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her story is that of a kid from a working class family in "rural" Nevada (her description; technically, Pahrump is not rural because, though unincorporated, its 2010 population is more than 35,000) who didn't know about colleges or how to pick one.  Lucky for her, Watkins went on to get an MFA from Ohio State and is now an assistant professor of English at Bucknell.

Watkins writes of getting her wake-up call about dramatic variations in educational resources when she was a high school senior, vying for a prestigious state-funded scholarship. That's when she met a peer from a Las Vegas high school who attended a magnet school, took college prep courses, had a tutor, and had spent time abroad.  The variations in resources, she realized, were based on geography:  he was an urban kid and she was a rural one.  But they were also based on class.  She doesn't specify the background of the Vegas teen, but she mentions that her mother and step-father had not gone to college.  I note that Pahrump's poverty rate is a fairly steep 21.1%.  Just 10.1% of residents there have a bachelor's degree or better, compared to about 30% nationwide.

Even after meeting the privileged teen from Vegas, however, Watkins didn't know what she didn't know.  She remained ignorant of the world of elite colleges, a sector that represented the "other planet" or "Mars" of the headline.  Instead, Watkins applied to UN Reno, she explains, because she had once taken a Greyhound bus to visit friends there. As Watkins expresses it, when poor rural kids apply to college (which, I might add, is altogether too rare), they typically apply to those institutions to which they have been "incidentally exposed."

Commenting on what admissions deans at elite schools might do to reach out to high-achieving, poor rural kids--whom they purport to be interested in for reasons of diversity and excellence--Watkins suggests, tongue in cheek, that they do "anything." More specifically, Watkins cleverly contrasts Ivy League efforts to recruit rural kids, which might be characterized by the terms "zip" and "nada," with military efforts to recruit the same kids, which might be characterized as "fulsome" and "robust." Guess who's winning that contest? The military, of course.  Here are just a few of the points Watkins makes:

  • No college rep ever showed up at Pahrump Valley High school, while the military brought a stream of alums through there on a regular basis.
  • The school devoted half a day each year to ensuring that every junior took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB); that test was free, while taking the ACT and SAT was  not.  
  • "But the most important thing the military did was walk kids and their families through the enlistment process."

Watkins closes by noting that elite colleges need to do more to reach those she calls "the rural poor," concluding that, until they do, "is it any wonder that students in Pahrump and throughout rural America are more likely to end up in Afghanistan than at N.Y.U.?"

The jumping off point for Watkins' op-ed is a recent paper by two profs (from Harvard and Stanford, no less), Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, "The Missing 'One-Offs':  The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students."  That paper was publicized in the Times last week-end in David Leonhardt's story, "Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor."  The summary and conclusions of the Hoxby and Avery paper do not talk in terms of rural-urban difference in relation to these missing "one-offs."  (They do, however, employ a tiny bit of geographical nuance in Table 9, listing two categories of "rural" students, those near an urban area and those far from one). Instead, Hoxby and Avery focus on the benefits to students of being in "geographic concentrations of high achievers."  They write in their abstract, for example, that these high-achieving students who fail to apply to elite schools

come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college.  

And where might those students be?  mostly in rural schools.  For folks like Watkins, it isn't hard to read between the lines and see that the high achievers most likely to slip between the cracks are kids in rural schools.    

All of this brings to me my own experience.  Like Watkins, I can see that many of the "missing" students Hoxby and Avery are talking about are rural.  My own K-12 school in rural Arkansas had an enrollment of about 400--and no counselor whatsoever to advise on college admissions. The first Ivy League graduates I ever met were professors at the University of Arkansas. I was there because, like many who Hoxby and Avery studied, I assumed it was the best bargain for me.  I didn't apply elsewhere.

I have to trust that the numerous people reading Watkins' tale will believe her revelations of her naiveté regarding college.  I certainly hope so, though I have been struck over the years at how many people are incredulous at my similar tale.  How, they marvel, disbelief in their voices, could you not have known to go to a "good school"?  People of privilege can find it remarkably difficult to believe that other people could really not know the things that are the very intellectual and emotional wall-paper of a life of privilege.

But there is another, related problem:  poor rural kids and the diversity they represent often go unvalued by educational decision makers.  Because these rural kids Watkins is talking about are often white, they don't appear, at first blush, to represent diversity.  Plus, I find privileged whites are just as uncomfortable around working class whites as they are around people of color--maybe more so in this day and age.  That discomfort--unmitigated by the need be politically correct because no PC imperative exists regarding poor whites--may deter the privileged from reaching out to recruit poor whites.  After all, as Watkins points out, it's not like these elite colleges are hurting for applicants.

Finally, privileged metropolitan and cosmopolitan types tend to hold the limitations of rural education against those who are products of it, discounting what these kids have achieved because of the absence of AP classes, the right extracurricular activities, and such.  (Read more here and here).  I recall being on the selection committee for the first round of elite Sturgis Fellows at the University of Arkansas in the late 1980s.  When I spoke up for a candidate with what I considered to have stellar credentials, a professor on the selection committee quickly countered by noting that the student was from a rural school, suggesting that the student's achievements had to be kept in proper perspective--namely that s/he had not been subjected to true intellectual rigor.  I recall meekly pointing out that I, too (then the University of Arkansas's undergraduate valedictorian) was the product of a rural school.  What was I?  chopped liver?  or just an anomaly?  I'll never know how the selection committee saw me.  But perhaps because I protested so meekly, my comment--and the outstanding rural candidate--got no traction.  All of that inaugural group of Sturgis Fellows, as I recall it, were from sizable high schools.    

Cross-posted to ClassCrits, UC Davis Faculty Blog, and SALTLaw Blog.    

December 7, 2012

Equal Access to the Tools of Political Change; The Sixth Circuit’s Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action Case Is Destined For the Supreme Court

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

One of the most closely watched cases—if not the most closely watched case—on this year’s Supreme Court docket is the challenge to the University of Texas’ race-based affirmative action program, Fisher v. University of Texas.  In Fisher, the Court will decide whether the Constitution leaves any room for public universities to use the race of individual student applicants in the admissions process. To put the point more technically, the Court will decide whether the “strict judicial scrutiny” applied to such programs is always fatal or, instead, allows a narrow space for public institutions to undertake such programs in order to enhance the racial diversity of the student body.

Assuming that the Court does not entirely foreclose race-based affirmative action in Fisher (and, as I explained in an earlier column, Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose vote will probably be dispositive, is unlikely to go that far), the Court will then likely have to take up another affirmative action case, this one recently decided by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc.

The Sixth Circuit case, Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action v. Regents of the University of Michigan, focuses not on whether a state may permissibly make use of race-based programs, but rather (somewhat non-obviously) on how a state that tries to abolish affirmative action may, in doing so, violate the Constitution.

The Background of Michigan’s Proposal 2, and the Sixth Circuit’s Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action Case

The Sixth Circuit’s en banc decision, handed down about a week after last month’s election, invalidated Proposal 2, a voter-initiated amendment to the Michigan Constitution.  Proposal 2, adopted six years ago, was itself seemingly prompted by the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger.  In that case, involving a race-based admissions program used by the University of Michigan law school, the Court, by a 5-4 vote, held that although a state’s use of race to classify individuals is “suspect” and triggers “strict judicial scrutiny” under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a narrowly tailored plan in which the race of higher education applicants is considered alongside numerous other factors, in order to admit a critical mass of minority students, is a permissible way to accomplish the compelling government interest of ensuring a diverse law school student body.

Proposal 2 responded to Grutter by amending the Michigan Constitution to completely forbid Michigan’s public colleges and universities from granting “preferential treatment to[] any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.” Proposal 2 thus attempted to close, as a matter of state constitutional law, the small window of federally permissible race-based affirmative action that had been identified in Grutter.  The 8-7 en banc ruling by the Sixth Circuit (following up on a 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the same court earlier this year), reflects an attempt to keep that window open, at least for the moment.

To understand the Sixth Circuit case and the issues it raises, let us start by remembering that most race-based affirmative action programs are in no way required by the Constitution—and indeed are, as noted above, assessed by the courts under a stringent standard dictated by the Fourteenth Amendment.  The programs at issue, designed to diversify public institutions (and also perhaps to provide some remedy for past discrimination against racial minorities), are voluntary, in that nothing in the federal Constitution requires their existence.  How then,  readers may wonder, can their abolition be even arguably problematic under the federal Constitution?

The answer, derived from a group of Supreme Court cases decided a generation ago, lies in the fact that sometimes programs (like affirmative action) that benefit minorities are abolished in a way that leaves all programs that benefit other groups untouched, and that makes reenactment of the programs that minorities prefer especially difficult.  And when minorities are subjected to greater political obstacles in the adoption (or readoption) of the programs they might support than are other groups, such disparate political-process treatment, said the Supreme Court, raises equal protection problems.

Consider, for example, the 1969 Supreme Court case of Hunter v. Erickson.  In Hunter, the people of Akron, Ohio—responding to an ordinance that prohibited racial discrimination in housing that had been enacted by the City Council—amended the city charter to prevent the implementation of any such ordinance that had failed to gain the express approval of a majority of Akron voters.

The amended charter defined the ordinances that were to be subject to the newly created popular-approval requirement as those laws regulating real estate transactions “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry . . . .”  The charter amendment, the Court pointed out, “not only suspended the operation of the existing ordinance forbidding housing discrimination, but also required approval of the electors before any future [housing discrimination] ordinance could take effect.”

By an 8-1 margin, the Justices struck down the charter amendment as a violation of equal protection. The Court declined to rest its decision on a finding of racist intent on the part of voters (which today would be a conventional rationale for invalidating laws that seem to reflect invidious attitudes towards racial minorities). Instead, the Court nullified the law because it effectively drew a “racial classification [which] treat[ed] racial housing matters differently [and less favorably]” than other matters.

The Court found it crucial that the law, while neutral on its face in the sense that it drew no distinctions among racial and religious groups, would nonetheless uniquely disadvantage the beneficiaries of antidiscrimination laws—racial minorities—by forcing such laws to run a legislative gauntlet of popular approval that other laws, and thus other interest groups, were spared.

A dozen years later, in Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Court applied and extended Hunter in a way that has direct implications for the Sixth Circuit’s treatment of Proposal 2. The essential background of the Seattle case is this: In order to cure widespread de facto racial segregation in Seattle-area schools, Seattle School District No. 1 adopted a voluntary integration plan that extensively used pupil reassignment and busing to eliminate one-race schools.  The Seattle program, in turn, prompted the people of Washington State to enact Initiative 350.

On its face, Initiative 350 provided broadly that “no school board . . . shall directly or indirectly require any student to attend a school other than [the geographically closest school].” The initiative, however, then set out so many exceptions to this prohibition that the effect on local school boards was to bar them from ordering reassignment or busing for the purpose of racial integration, but to permit them to order reassignment or busing for all other educationally valid reasons (sibling attendance, access to particular educational programs, etc).

By a 5-4 vote, the Court struck down the plebiscite. As in Hunter, the Court declined to rest its holding on a finding of invidious intent on the part of the electorate. Instead, the Court invalidated Initiative 350 because it singled out racial busing—a program of particular importance to racial minorities—and moved it from the control of local decision-making bodies to central management at the statewide level, where minorities were less likely to enjoy democratic success; if racial busing—but racial busing alone—were ever to be reenacted anywhere in the state, its proponents would need to lobby and win at the state, rather than the local school district, level. This selective and unfavorable treatment of public programs that were distinctively beneficial to minorities, the Court held, denied such minorities the equal protection right to “full participation in the political life of the community.”

In both of these cases, the Supreme Court applied (with varying degrees of clarity) a two-pronged test: First, someone who challenges a given law must show that the law in question is “racial” or “race-based” in “character,” in that it singles out for special treatment issues that are particularly associated with minority interests.

Second, the challenger must show that the law imposes an unfair political-process burden with regard to these “minority issues” by entrenching their unfavorable resolution at a level, or in a process, of state government where it is distinctively hard for minorities to prevail.

Strict scrutiny is triggered only if the challenger satisfies both parts of the test. A law that imposes special political-process burdens on classes that are not associated with race does not directly implicate the cases.  Similarly, a law that deals explicitly with “racial” issues but does not impose any entrenching political process burdens—for example, a law that simply repeals pro-minority policies at the same level of government at which they were originally enacted—is also unproblematic.

The Sixth Circuit’s Application of the Hunter-Seattle Doctrine

Utilizing this two-part test, the Sixth Circuit concluded that Proposal 2 was constitutionally flawed. First, it held that the measure was racial in character, in that it dealt specially with an issue—race-based affirmative action—that is of distinctive interest and benefit to racial minorities. Indeed, the racial busing programs in the Seattle case were just one type of “voluntary” race-based affirmative action; if elimination of those programs affected minorities especially, then elimination of the broader category of which they were a part would seem to do so, as well.

Moving to the second part of the test, the Sixth Circuit held that Proposal 2 dealt with this racial issue by entrenching a policy that was unfavorable to minorities at a level of government—that of the state constitution—at which minorities are less likely to succeed than they are at lower levels, such as local government or university administration. Although Michigan is free to repeal affirmative-action programs, the Sixth Circuit suggested, it cannot repeal such programs at a level higher than the one at which those programs were initially adopted, just as the State of Washington could not repeal racial busing at the statewide level, rather than the local level.

As the Sixth Circuit explained in its opening sentences, “[a] student seeking to have her family’s alumni connections considered in her applications to one of Michigan’s . . . public universities could do one of four things to have the school adopt a legacy-conscious admissions policy:  she could lobby the admissions committee, she could petition the leadership of the university, she could seek to influence the school’s governing board, or, as a measure of last resort, she could initiate a statewide campaign to alter the state’s constitution.  The same cannot be said for a black student seeking adoption of a constitutionally permissible race-conscious admissions policy.  That student could do only one thing to effect change: she could attempt to amend the Michigan Constitution—a lengthy, expensive and arduous process—to repeal the consequences of Proposal 2.  The existence of such a comparative structural burden undermines the Equal Protection Clause’s guarantee that all citizens ought to have equal access to the tools of political change.”

What Is Likely to Happen in the Supreme Court

The Sixth Circuit’s reasoning is careful, and its result is defensible under current law; there really is a powerful logical sense in which the structure and reasoning of the Seattle case applies with full force to doom Proposal 2.  But the case will almost certainly be presented to the Supreme Court, and unless the Court eliminates race-based affirmative action entirely in Fisher, the Court will most probably grant review.  The Sixth Circuit en banc ruling openly disagrees with a Ninth Circuit case from the 1990s in which that court upheld California’s state- constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action (Proposition 209) in the face of a Hunter-Seattle challenge.  Many observers (myself included) thought that the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning did not convincingly distinguish the Seattle case or otherwise explain why that case did not control, but that is neither here nor there now that there is a sharp circuit conflict that the Supreme Court will likely feel the need to resolve.

And when the Court takes the Proposal 2 case, I would expect Proposal 2 to be upheld, perhaps overwhelmingly, by the Court.  Why?  For starters, none of the Justices who were on the Court at the time of the Seattle case are still there. Stare decisis applies, to be sure, but stare decisis may tend to have more weight when some member of the Court who voted in the majority in the original case is present to defend it when the Court revisits the matter.  It also bears noting that the “liberals” on the Court today (e.g., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steve Breyer, Elena Kagan) are not nearly so liberal as the liberals who were on the Court in the early 1980s (e.g., William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall).  (We saw some evidence of that last Term, in which Justices Breyer and Kagan joined in the 7-2 invalidation of the Medicaid spending conditions that were at issue in the Obamacare case.)

Not only has the Court’s personnel evolved; so has its doctrine.  The Seattle case and its underlying reasoning would not appear to reflect current thinking at the high Court. Over the past twenty years, City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson (an affirmative action case involving the City of Richmond) and its progeny have justified strict scrutiny for purportedly “benign” race-conscious programs by emphasizing (among other things) certain costs that affirmative action programs threaten to impose on minorities (whether uniquely or along with others).

These cases reflect an equal protection doctrine that embraces formally symmetrical rules governing members of all races, and the cases seemingly downplay the significance of traditional contextual concerns, such as the political powerlessness or historical oppression of racial minorities in particular.  The “feel” of these recent decisions thus diverges from the more nuanced and asymmetrical “feel” of Hunter and Seattle. It is for that reason that I have elsewhere written that Hunter and Seattle may not “make[] sense in today’s world.”

Of particular relevance, the Court has observed in recent decades that race-based affirmative action programs threaten to embrace and “foster harmful and divisive stereotypes,” which might “balkanize us into competing racial factions.” Proposal 2, its supporters would thus contend, does not frustrate valued minority interests. Rather, the Initiative simply moves Michigan law into line with the Supreme Court’s current disparaging attitude toward affirmative action programs. Another way of making the point is to observe that Grutter (the 2003 Michigan law school case) is the exceptional result over the last two decades; most of the time it has visited these issues, the Court has invalidated racial affirmative action, or at least urged lower courts to do so.

Finally, the societal backdrop against which the Proposal 2 case will be heard is very different from that against which the Seattle and Hunter cases arose. In those cases, the Justices in the majority may very well have smelled a rat—in the form of an evil racist motive on the part of the voters—but were too genteel to say so explicitly.

Indeed, there may be many cases in many areas of constitutional law that are, in fact, driven by unstated intuitions harbored by the Justices about impermissible legislative intent.

For example, the Court’s invalidation on federalism grounds of the so-called “Gun Free Schools Zone Act” and the “Violence Against Women Act” in the Lopez (1995) and Morrison (2000) cases, respectively, may have been partially attributable to the Court’s (unarticulated) sense that Congress was not sincerely motivated by the commercial/economic implications that these laws had, and so could not properly rely for their defense on the Commerce Clause.  (For many of those of us who taught and studied the Obamacare case, this aspect made that case—which focused on a policy choice that was sincerely motivated in significant part by economic aspirations—very different from these earlier laws that the Court had struck down.)  But for complicated reasons, the Court may not always be open about the extent to which improper legislative intent is influencing its rulings.

In any event, in Twenty-First Century Michigan, the Court may infer racist intent from Proposal 2 far less readily than it may have from a state’s ban on racial busing over 30 years ago. One possible lesson that may emerge after the Supreme Court resolved Proposal 2 is that sometimes, grounding a decision in invidious intent directly—insulting though it may seem to the polity that is rebuffed—may reduce the doctrinal complexities that are caused by more elaborate, but less intuitive, theoretical explanations of the kind offered in the Seattle case.