Monday, November 23, 2015




          There was good news and bad news – and in other ways no news at all – in the latest results of standardized tests given each year to California public school students.

          It was, for example, no news at all that even though this year’s test was more rigorous than ever before and based on new Common Core standards adopted by this state and 41 others, students from wealthier households and school districts did fine, while those with deprived parents and districts did not.

          This was demonstrated by the fact that, for example, kids at the Canyon Elementary School in the well-to-do Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles saw their performances in last spring’s testing drop only two percentage points on the tougher new test, from 95 percent scoring at projected grade levels to 93 percent.

          Similarly, an average of 60 percent of students in the wealthy – but not nearly as wealthy – Fresno suburb of Clovis, where most families are white or Asian American, performed at grade levels, while those in two nearby districts with heavy majorities of Latino students came in at an average of 20 and 22 percent in combined English and math scores. Formal name for the new test is the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress.

          These results perfectly illustrated a fact that educators have long known: Parents and the emphasis they put on education are more important than any other single educational factor. In this way, the scores on the new test were no news at all.

          There was also good news. The new tests contain questions that require deeper thinking about themes in literature and the concepts of algebra and geometry. Exams are designed so that no two students should ever be presented with exactly the same test, containing the same set of questions and answers.

          This aims to help address longstanding complaints about “teaching to the test,” the practice many schoolteachers have felt forced to adopt over decades of being judged by how well their students perform on standardized tests. The thrust of those complaints was that students were being force-fed rote learning designed purely so they would do well on tests, thus furthering the political and personal goals of teachers, administrators, politicians and public employee unions, all of whom have an easier time of it when students perform better.

          With the new test stressing critical thinking and knowledge of basic concepts, rather than answers to specific questions, teachers who want to teach to the test now must emphasize thought and understanding of why the answers to some questions are what they are.

          Then there was bad news: The persistent gaps between ethnic groups seen in all previous versions of standardized tests remain with us. In English, 72 percent of Asian students and 51 percent of Anglos tested at grade level or better, while only 28 percent of black pupils and 32 percent of Latinos did as well.

          And, proving again the links between economics and education, only 21 percent of students from low-income families scored at grade level in math, while 53 percent of those from more affluent families did. This suggests that the better preschool programs to which wealthier parents often send their children do have lasting effects, generally putting kids at a permanent advantage if their parents can afford to give them a head start.

          What’s more, students at schools in the most affluent districts dropped less from levels on the previous California-only tests than those in poor districts. Again, there's the reality of the advantages conferred by wealthy parents and the disadvantages inflicted on children whose parents must struggle just to feed and clothe and house them.

          The saddest part of all this was that the lower scores put up by California kids were neither isolated – scores were lower all across the country – nor a surprise. A field test two years ago indicated exactly the problems that turned up in the first year of full-scale testing. That indicates little or nothing was done to improve matters in the ensuing two years.

          Will anything more be done now? Will California legislators, parents and educators accept overall results that indicate only about 40 percent of high school graduates are equipped to pass college-level courses? That remains to be seen.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




          There is no doubt Gov. Jerry Brown has tolerated corruption in his administration. But now there are hints that he might be personally involved in some of it.

    For corruption Brown has known about, but not curbed, start with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), proven to have decided multi-billion-dollar rate cases after lengthy private contacts and email exchanges between commissioners, their staff and utility executives.

    Then there’s the state Energy Commission, which handed tens of millions of dollars in “hydrogen highway” grants to a consultant who two years ago drew the map of where that money was to be spent, then resigned and formed a company which three months later applied for and got most of the available money.

    No member of either commission has been disciplined. Nor have any commission practices changed discernibly. Brown promoted his former aide Michael Picker to president of the PUC despite the fact that during the year Picker and disgraced former PUC President Michael Peevey served together, Picker voted for every deal Peevey pushed.

          At the Energy Commission, despite proven cronyism and his vote to back the hydrogen highway conflict of interest, Chairman Robert Weisenmiller was soon reappointed.

          Now come hints that the consistently hands-on Brown might not merely condone corruption in his administration; he may be part of it.

          These come from two directions: In San Francisco Superior Court, San Diego lawyers Michael Aguirre and Mia Severson are pushing for access to more than 60 records purportedly showing Brown or his office was in direct and frequent contact with PUC commissioners at the time of the infamous San Onofre settlement. That was the agreement worked out – apparently illegally –   on stationary and paper napkins of a luxury Warsaw hotel between a junketing Peevey and executives of the Southern California Edison Co.

          The deal would have customers of Edison and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. pay $3.3 billion, or about three-fourths of the cost of retiring the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which failed because Edison officials bought a flawed $660 million part knowing all along it could destroy SONGS, as it eventually did.

          The PUC so far refuses to reopen that case, but has not shown why consumers should pay anything for Edison’s blunder at San Onofre.

          One reason the nominally independent commission, made up of five Brown appointees, is obdurate may be that it knows Brown liked the deal from the start.

          While no one will know until after a scheduled Dec. 9 court hearing what’s in those documents, another email proves Brown knew about and favored the illegally crafted San Onofre settlement early on. A June 6, 2013 note sent by Edison CEO Ted Craver to company board members starts with Craver saying he “wanted to give you a quick report on my phone calls with Gov. Brown.”

          This came while Brown was in Rancho Mirage meeting with President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reported Craver, “He said what we were doing seemed right under the circumstances.” Craver  also said Brown “indicated a willingness to” say publicly that Edison was acting responsibly. What else might have been said in that call?

          For sure, Brown spoke to Craver while meeting with two of the three most powerful world leaders. That’s how hands-on the governor can be, even when he has no formal voice in a decision. There was also a possible conflict of interest here: His sister, Kathleen, is a board member of SDG&E’s parent company, which has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in this case.

          Maybe Brown was more directly involved than we know. That’s only a guess, but Brown invites speculation when he and his PUC appointees use tax dollars trying to hide their contacts.

          Brown press secretary Evan Westrup, asked for the governor’s response to or explanation for all this, would say only “I do not expect we’ll be commenting.”

          This non-response came while Brown was fending off public outrage over his demand that California’s oil regulating agency provide him maps and records showing any potential for oil and natural gas drilling on his family’s 2,700-acre ranch in Colusa County.

          Add it up and possible corruption involving Brown could far exceed the questionable moves which spurred the 2003 recall of ex-Gov. Gray Davis.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Wednesday, November 18, 2015




          At about 8:05 p.m. Nov. 3, anyone in San Mateo County who cared knew that its (almost) all-mail election was a resounding success.

          That’s when the county published the results from 68,988 ballots which arrived by mail before that Election Day began. The election wasn’t completely over, but those votes amounted to just over 75 percent of all ballots cast in the county, where turnout was up by just over 3 percent from two years earlier. At that time, mail ballots went only to voters who requested them and just 25 percent of those eligible actually voted.

          Even then, mail ballots accounted for 77 percent of the votes cast in 2013. This fall, with what used to be called “absentee” ballots sent to every registered voter in the county, mail votes accounted for fully 97 percent of the total of 96,200 cast. Just 2,133 live votes were cast in a handful of locations around the county where voting machines were available to anyone who wanted them for several weeks before Election Day.

          The same sort of thing happened in two similar all-mail elections in Yolo County in 2013, when vote totals did not change much from previously, but there were significant cost savings.

          In San Mateo County, all this precluded any late-night tension on Election Night. It was over almost before it started.  By the time three-quarters of the votes are counted on the usual Election Night, most candidates have long-since given victory speeches or conceded. Only unusually tight races drag on into the night.

          That was not going to happen in San Mateo County, where final results awaited the 25,000-odd ballots carrying postmarks of Nov. 3 or earlier, but didn’t reach the county voting registrar before Election Day. Those results weren’t completely added in to the final totals until nine days after the election, so there wasn’t much point in anyone staying up deep into the night.

          It was all part of a three-year experiment that will be suspended for the presidential election year of 2016, but resume two years from now with the next off-year elections.

          The early readings on this trial are all positive. Not only was participation up among registered voters, but the actual number of ballots cast rose by about 15,000 from the average of the previous three elections.

          Then there were costs – way down. Not only did the county save on renting space for polling places, but there was no need for pre-election testing of the more than 1,000 voting machines usually deployed. And there were no more than the usual number of mismarked ballots. “Voting by mail is not really complicated,” Mark Church, the county clerk and registrar, told a reporter.

          What about fraud, the big fear expressed by skeptics who have long feared that marking ballots at home, at work or wherever people like can lead to pressure on voters and other forms of coercion? So far, there are no reports of any such problems, just as that sort of problem has been rare since the late 1970s, when mail ballots became available to all voters, not just those planning to be absent on Election Day.

          Monetary savings came from needing only 32 “universal” polling stations, where anyone registered in the county could vote regardless of home address. These replaced the more than 200 polling places used in other recent elections, even elections that saw mail ballots account for three-quarters of the vote. Fewer polling places meant less need to deploy trucks, saving more money. It also reduced the need for one-day poll workers from the previous 1,700 to about 150, saving between $148 and $180 for each worker not hired, an approximate savings of about $250,000.

          The bottom line here is that elections will cost less in the future, they will be conducted mostly in homes, where voters can examine sample ballots and ballot proposition booklets at leisure while they vote. This was already happening to a large extent: Last year’s statewide primary saw 69 percent of all votes cast by mail.

          One good thing is that this will soon cause most counties to get rid of the vast majority of voting machines, long controversial because of tampering fears.

          And that means future voting will be done earlier and earlier, forcing frontloaded campaigns at every level.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




          Critics call California’s three-year-old top two primary election system a “jungle primary” because it tosses candidates of all stripes into the same pot, forcing them to speak to all voters since only the two leading vote-getters can make it into November runoff elections.

          But by this time next year, the national Republican Party might be wishing this system were in effect much more widely.

          The reason is clear: Donald Trump.

          Almost all pundits until very recently gave him only a slim chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination he seeks so avidly. No poll gives him much chance of besting any leading Democratic candidate.

    Yet, Trump has been the steady leader in the GOP polls since declaring his candidacy with a blast at illegal immigration, calling the undocumented a bunch of criminals, rapists and murderers despite the fact their crime rate is about as low as that of any group in America.

          The facts on this and other items don’t faze Trump because he knows who he’s appealing to: the most radically conservative voters in the Republican Party’s base. Because Republican primaries are winner-take-all, all he needs is a plurality among GOP voters in a few states in order to force most other Republican candidates out of the race.

          This means Trump has no need to appease moderate Republicans or even think about Democrats, as he would need to do in a top-two race like those that have brought an element of moderation to California’s Legislature.

          It means that for now he needs to deal with only a very small slice of America, no matter  how little credibility may have in other quarters. Nationally, registered GOP voters amount to about 32 percent of all registrants, about 15 percentage points behind Democrats. Polls now show Trump drawing between 25 and 40 percent of the GOP vote, or approximately 8 to 10 percent of those who have registered.

          But the registered account for less than three-fourths of those eligible to vote. So Trump currently is drawing support from only about 7 or 8 percent of eligible voters, a small portion of the nation. But if he continues drawing his current level of support and no other candidate passes him, he can win the GOP nomination just like that.

          In fact, Trump doesn’t even need support from 7 percent of eligible voters, because far less than half of all registered Republicans vote regularly in primary elections. This means he needs to appeal to barely 3 percent of the entire eligible voter pool.

          That level of support certainly wouldn’t win him the presidency, but it could produce utter disaster for his party, because if Trump should be the GOP nominee, he could drag down many members of the House and Senate in swing states and districts.

          That's why longtime GOP leaders like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona warn that Trump could spell ruination for their party.

          They might be right, and a top two primary system operating nationally could be the solution.

          Yes, such a system could one day result in pitting Democrat vs. Democrat or Republican vs. Republican for the presidency, as has happened in dozens of California legislative races since this state voted for the switch to top two.

          In many of those cases, the more moderate, less radically right or left candidate has won, one reason why the state Legislature is a far more functional body today than it was just a few years ago. (The other reason is that Californians voted several years ago to eliminate the two-thirds-vote requirement for passing budgets.)

          It’s true minor party candidates have not yet made it into a runoff under top two. But that doesn’t mean they can't if one of them ever develops mass appeal.

          Imagine the scare a third-party candidate like Ross Perot or John Anderson could put into both major parties under a national top two primary system.

          The Republican Party has been as active as the Democrats in opposing such change, on both state and national levels. But if Trump leads Republicans to a complete disaster next year using the current closed primary system, the GOP might have to change its tune, and soon.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Tuesday, November 10, 2015




          The days when oil companies could credibly deny they’re gouging California drivers just because they’ve dropped pump prices a bit appear now to be over.

          For every measuring stick except a comparison with the price of gasoline four months ago leads to the unmistakable conclusion that this state’s three biggest gasoline refiners – Valero, Tesoro and Chevron – are still gouging customers like they did at mid-summer, when prices topped $4 per gallon in many places.

          Now prices are down to $2.60 in some spots, while it’s hard to find gas anywhere at prices over $3.60 per gallon.

          That’s taking some heat off the big refiners, but it should not. For even when this state’s higher-than-normal gasoline taxes are figured in, Californians are still paying about 60 cents per gallon more than the average price in many other states with far worse access to refined gasoline.

          The first thing to understand is that the price is down because the cost of oil has been below $50 per barrel for many months, largely the result of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which has hugely increased American supplies.

          Motorists in most parts of America benefit far more from this than Californians, with prevailing prices in most regions well below $2 per gallon all fall.

          To ascertain whether a company is profiteering to take advantage of unusual market conditions, the best place to look is at its profits, which all firms whose stock is publicly traded must make public.

          The most prominent third-quarter corporate report among California-related oil companies this fall came from Chevron Corp. The San Ramon-based firm has announced it will cut 11 percent of its workforce, or about 7,000 jobs, as it deals with lower oil prices that cut its company-wide profit about 60 percent below the same quarter a year ago, from $5.6 billion to $2.04 billion.

          But look a bit closer and you see how bad things would have been for Chevron but for the money it gouged from California consumers. For the first nine months of this year, the huge corporation’s refining operations netted a whopping $2.6 billion, compared with $1.4 billion last year. Since 54 percent of Chevron’s refining occurs in California, in El Segundo and Richmond, it’s clear that overcharging Californians has been one of Chevron’s most profitable tactics this year.

          Then there are Valero and Tesoro, the latter selling much of its gas under the Shell and USA labels. These are the only two big oil companies that break out California-specific refining profits. And what profits they reaped! For Tesoro, the profit was $770 million just from California gasoline refining in the third quarter. This was double the company’s take for the July-to-September period last year and about four times the firm’s average quarterly profit of $169 million over the last 10 years.

          Valero, meanwhile, made $342 million on California refining during the third quarter, an almost obscene 14 times more than last year. Its per-barrel profit was $13.54, fully 11 times more than last year’s figure for the same time period in 2014.

          All the companies claim their profits were in part due to a partial outage of the Exxon-Mobil refinery in Torrance, but exported gasoline continued to flow from California to Mexico and other destinations throughout the third quarter. If there was a shortage here, why would exports continue?

          “Those outsize profits show just how broken the state’s gasoline market is,” said Cody Rosenfield, a researcher for the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group. “Instead of passing on a dramatic drop in the price of crude oil, California refiners imposed extreme and unreasonable pain at the pump for consumers.”

          Sure, that pain is a tad less when prices come down. But imagine how many dollars could have flowed into the state’s economy, rather than to the Texas headquarters of Valero and Tesoro, if profits had remained at their previous, already copious levels.

          Yes, billionaire activist Tom Steyer threatened last summer to fund and run a ballot initiative requiring disclosure of all refiners’ California profits, among other things, unless the Legislature imposed new transparency rules on the gasoline market by the end of September.

          That deadline came and went with no action from either legislators or Steyer, leaving consumers to wonder when anyone will take a hand to stop the ongoing gouging of millions of Californians.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




          It’s rather doubtful that Janet Napolitano worried much when she first heard vandals scrawled swastikas and the message “Jews to the gas chamber” inside a restroom on a University of California campus.

          Or, later, when she learned “grout out the Jews” and “Hitler did nothing wrong” had been daubed on other campus walls.

          Just a form of college hijinks, she probably thought. Chances are, she also paid little heed a couple of years earlier when Muslim students carrying dummy submachine guns on the Berkeley campus set up mock checkpoints and stopped only students who appeared to be Jews.

          But the current crisis over these and many other campus incidents now threatens to undermine Napolitano’s authority in ways that quarrels over admissions standards, faculty salaries and top-heavy administrative budgets never have.

          There is no doubt anti-Semitism has been allowed to run rampant at UC, and not merely via incendiary sloganeering on walls and other structures. There has been a bleeding over of anti-Israel sentiment into plain old-fashioned, almost medieval anti-Semitism spurred by an ever-growing Arab presence on the campuses, partly a side effect of the university’s increased willingness to accept foreign students because they pay $24,000 a year more tuition than in-state students. UC flat-out needs their money because of years of decreased state funding under ex-Govs. Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

          The expanded Muslim contingent on campus portrays Israel to home-grown minority students as a colonial power, an image furthered by the growth of Jewish settlements on former Palestinian lands. Many minority students, ignoring a long history of Jewish support and sacrifice on behalf of their civil rights, have helped the Palestinian movement encourage a boycott of Israeli products, university divestment from companies doing business there and other sanctions against the Jewish state.

          Interestingly, this movement does not specifically target Israeli students, of whom there is a tiny contingent at UC. Rather, it focuses on all Jews, the vast majority of whom have never been there and don’t make Israeli policy.

          The upshot is that nothing has been done to deter anti-Semitism, in part because campus administrators fear being accused of stifling academic debate. But how is academic freedom involved when mathematics professors spout anti-Jewish rhetoric, as has happened occasionally? What would happen to the same faculty if they regularly spewed the N-word or anti-feminist or anti-Muslim messages?

          So in late May, in an interview with National Public Radio, Napolitano pledged to submit to her Board of Regents in July a policy statement adopting the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, as it is manifested in attacks on Israel. It is not, by those standards, anti-Semitic to question Israeli policy on settlements or anything else. But it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. That would be equivalent to denying Japan’s right to exist as a Japanese state. The State Department also calls it anti-Semitic when Israel is condemned for the same practices routinely engaged in by other countries.

          Pope Francis goes farther, observing the other day that “To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the state of Israel is also anti-Semitism.”

          Both, of course, happen frequently on UC’s 10 celebrated campuses.

          Meanwhile, Napolitano reneged on her pledge to offer the Regents a policy banning anti-Semitism on campus, postponing the subject for two months before proposing a milquetoast anti-intolerance statement in September.

          This spurred rebellion among the Regents. Norman Pattiz, the head of the national Westwood One radio network, observed that “To completely disregard the people who brought (this) to our attention…I think is insulting.”

          Added fellow Regent Bonnie Reiss, director of an institute at USC, “When we hear lines of students giving us examples of swastikas on…fraternities or challenging a Jewish student’s (right) to serve on a council just as a result of her religious identity, of statements that “Hitler was right,” I hope I’m not the only one feeling chilled…”

          It was a very unusual outcry from usually acquiescent Regents, and a direct challenge to Napolitano.

          It’s now up to her and the committee she’s appointed to draft a new statement to fix this, stop the continuing wave of campus anti-Semitism – or lose what credibility she has as chief of the most prestigious university system in America.


Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is

Tuesday, November 3, 2015




          State commissions, like people and corporations, rarely change unless they’re given strong motivation; sometimes change has to be forced on them.

          The latest evidence now demonstrates that the California Public Utilities Commission is no different. Gov. Jerry Brown, who appointed all five current members of this scandal-plagued agency, just over a month ago refused to sign a package of bills passed unanimously by the state Legislature – every Democrat, every Republican – that would have compelled the PUC to make a few small changes.

          Like keeping records of all contacts between commissioners, their staff and officials of the big utility companies they regulate, including Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric. Like writing decisions in “understandable” language.

          No big changes were involved in these bills. Commissioners would still have had six-year terms and still could not be fired even by the governor who appoints them. PUC decisions could still be reversed only by appeals courts – where new evidence can only rarely be presented.

          What happens when you tell five powerful commissioners they won’t have to change their behavior, when the governor puts no pressure to resign even on a commissioner who helped PG&E find the most sympathetic judge to hear the case involving its 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons?

          They don’t change. That is nowhere better illustrated than in the first significant decision announced after the Brown vetoes.

          This case did not involve billions of dollars as when the commission considers routine rate increase requests from the utilities. The pattern there sees the companies invariably ask more than any reasonable person or agency would think justified. New rates somewhat lower than what was asked are then assigned and the PUC takes credit for “saving” consumers money even though rates here continue at levels that already exceed those in any other of the Lower 48 states.

          The latest case involved a mere $400 million insurance settlement agreed to this fall by Southern California Edison, the money to compensate its customers and those of SDG&E for higher rates they paid after the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station suddenly went bust in early 2012 due to a decision Edison knew in advance was flawed.

          When a $400 million windfall arrives, the logical thing is to pass it on immediately to consumers, with almost all 8 million or so customers involved getting a lump sum of about $50. But no. As with other settlements the PUC has fostered, this one will be doled out in tiny increments, not amounts that might be meaningful to customers.

          The current plan is for a rate reduction of about 2.4 percent on monthly bills as long as the money lasts, which could be anywhere from one to three years. During that time, of course, Edison will likely get a routine rate increase far higher than this, rendering the pittances doled out monthly even less significant.

          Plus, the settlement is much smaller than some similar ones over the years in other nuclear power incidents. Edison spokeswoman Maureen Brown (no relation to the governor) would not reveal the maximum possible payout under her company’s policy with Nuclear Electric Insurance Limited. Meanwhile, most media simply accepted Edison press releases calling the settlement a great benefit to consumers, some even borrowing the headline the company suggested.

          Butthe benefit to consumers would only amount to pennies above $2 per month (before the next rate increase) if their bills are about $100.

          It’s the same kind of arrangement the PUC okayed after the companies that created the California energy crunch of 2000-2001 were forced to cough up some of their illegal profits. As with this one, payments to consumers were so small most barely noticed them.

          At the same time, the utilities made tens of millions of dollars in interest while holding onto the bulk of the settlements until they were gone – pretty much the sort of thing that will happen this time.

          The PUC didn’t have to go along with the utility’s plan for handling this money and it can still change the longstanding pattern that favors the big companies over their customers. But as long as no change in its culture is forced on it, don’t expect the agency to change a thing.


Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is