Wednesday, March 15, 2017




          Few questions about public education have been disputed more hotly over the last few years than evaluations – in a day when almost everyone agrees public schools need major improvement, how to tell which teachers are good, which are the best and which don’t deserve to be kept around.

          For some, the answer is in “value added” ratings: How much do children improve or decline in standardized testing while under the tutelage of one teacher compared to what they do under another?

          But America’s second-largest teachers union might have a better idea: make sure teachers are well qualified even before they’re hired. True, that’s what teacher credentialing is supposed to do, but no one pretends any more that a credential assures any teacher has mastery over the subjects he or she might teach.

          As a rule, teachers and their unions don’t like the value-added idea. It  puts all the onus on them and none on pupils or their parents, where many analysts believe most education problems originate and are perpetuated.

          But a few local unions have broken down and allowed test scores to be used as part of teacher evaluation. In 2015, California’s largest school district (Los Angeles Unified) and its teachers union tentatively agreed to this sort of arrangement. That agreement eventually could see state test scores, high school exit exam results, rates of attendance, graduation and suspensions all factored into teacher evaluations. The weight given to each of these factors and classroom observation is not yet agreed upon.

          Into this dispute comes the American Federation of Teachers, the No. 2 education union behind the National Education Assn. (The California Teachers Assn. is part of the NEA.)

          The AFT notes that school districts for a time raised the bar for students by using the high school exit exam and other standardized tests to make sure diplomas have real meaning. On hiatus now in California, that exam may or may not come back. But the union notes there are no similarly widespread means to test whether new teachers are qualified to take over classrooms.

          It commissioned a survey of 500 new public school teachers and found fully one-third felt unprepared on their first day. Those hired to teach special needs students or working in low-performing schools were most likely to feel unprepared and overwhelmed.

          The union suggests improving this via a national entry assessment “that is universal across the county, rigorous and multidimensional.” AFT president Randi Weingarten compared it to the bar exam taken by nascent lawyers.

          “The components must include subject and pedagogical (teaching techniques) knowledge and demonstration of teaching performance – in other words, the ingredients of a caring, competent and confident new teacher,” said an AFT report.

          In response, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which evaluates what teachers should know, agreed to start designing entry assessment standards for the profession, which would include a full year of successful student teaching under a classroom veteran.

          By doing all this, the AFT is not out to put more pressure on young teachers. Rather, the idea is that when school districts, parents, politicians and the public know everyone at the head of a classroom is qualified, pressure will mount on parents and students to do their share, because it will no longer be so easy to accuse teachers of incompetence.

          The AFT also wants new standards for teachers to help de-emphasize what it calls “a national fixation on excessive testing,” which often sees instructors teaching to specific tests, rather than striving for a rounded education for pupils. That’s natural when teachers are evaluated on test scores more than anything else.

          “Public education should be obsessed with high-quality teaching and learning, not high-stakes testing,” Weingarten said. “Tests have a role, but the fixation with them undermines (giving) kids a universal education and keeps us from fairly measuring teachers’ performance.”

          In short, give kids the best-prepared teachers possible, rather than loosing unprepared newbies into classrooms with insufficient guidance or preparation.

          Then it would be up to parents and students themselves, as they’d no longer be able to scapegoat teachers when kids do poorly.

          If this seems to represent a pendulum swing away from today’s overemphasis on tests, that’s probably a good thing, so long as standardized exams aren’t completely abandoned.

     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, go to




          At the very moment when California’s largest utility company was being assessed a $14 million fine for failing to report discovery of flawed records on its gas pipelines, that same company in 2014 began asking for well over $1 billion in rate increases to pay for repairs to the very same pipeline system.

          This is Pacific Gas & Electric, the same huge utility company – California’s largest – that in 2016 was criminally convicted in federal court of safety violations and obstruction of justice related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight persons and destroyed dozens of homes. The fine: a paltry $3 million. No PG&E executive went to prison for the deaths and not a single firing was mandated by federal or state authorities.

          Meanwhile, PG&E kept right on pursuing its routine every-three-years-or-so rate increases for natural gas and electric service, asking initially for more than $4.6 billion in additional charges to customers. The company ended up getting about $2.37 billion over three years in the usual “kabuki dance” conducted by the state Public Utilities Commission – this pattern sees the Big Four of PG&E, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric routinely ask for huge increases, then “settle” for about half their original request, with the PUC then bragging about how much it has saved consumers.

          But PG&E regularly posts profits approaching $1 billion a year. It’s legitimate to ask whether it should be entitled to any rate increase when it has misbehaved as egregiously as it has over the last eight years or more. (PG&E collected more than $60 billion in gas pipeline maintenance funds from customers in the 60 years preceding San Bruno, but there has never been an accounting of where that money went.)

          So here’s a criminal company demanding ever more from its customers, and the PUC simply hands it over. No one even suggests forcing PG&E to divest any of its holdings to publicly-owned Community Choice Aggregation power suppliers as a consequence of its repeated, frequent bad behavior and what federal authorities called negligence.

          Instead, the company’s customers pay more than ever. The typical monthly bill has risen from about $137 at the end of 2015 to more than $150, an increase of about 9 percent. Even when PG&E was fined by the state last year for violating pipeline safety standards, more than 53 percent of that money -- $850 million – was earmarked for repairs and improvements that customers funded years ago and were supposed to have been made long since.  The company saved another $100 million or so because its entire “fine” was tax deductible.

          And yet, in an interview published this spring, the company’s new chief executive, Geisha Williams, bragged that PG&E’s rates are lower than the national average of about $190 per month. Even she concedes this is not because of efficiency, but due to climate: There are few blizzards in PG&E’s vast service territory except in sparsely-populated mountain areas.

          All of which means that even with a new CEO and even with a new self-described emphasis on safety, PG&E still has not deviated from its longtime goal of forcing customers to put up new cash continually for it to bring its system up to the level of safety it should have had all along.

          As consumers pay their ever-increasing bills – further increases are upcoming, along with shifts in the rate tiers under which bills are figured – no one really knows just how much PG&E actually needs to stay solvent. The same is true for the other big privately-owned utilities.

But we do know that customers of all three major California gas utilities have paid scores of billions of dollars in maintenance money over many years. They have every reason for righteous indignation as they look at the increases on their monthly bills, which add up to well over $100 yearly for the average residential customer.

          But they will get no solace from PG&E, despite the new happy and safety-conscious face it is putting on. Which means the audacity and the chutzpah of PG&E has paid off, bigly.


      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 second edition. His email address is For more Elias columns, go to




          If you’re a millennial, now aged 18 to 35, there’s a good chance the only major city in California you’re very much interested in moving to is San Francisco. That’s because it’s largely walkable, with plenty of amenities like singles bars and gorgeous parks. And also a lot of high-paying, high-tech jobs if you qualify.

          Millenials may be willing to double- and triple-up so they can live where they like despite high rents, but that same cost factor is driving an unprecedented share of them away from California, says a new study from the Apartment List website (

          When they get ready to buy, those same millennials are forced out of high-priced cities like San Francisco, Santa Barbara and the coastal parts of Los Angeles, adds the CoreLogic data analysis firm (

          This scene is not unique to California’s higher-priced cities, but also occurs in New York, Chicago’s tonier areas, Boston and Washington, D.C. But it could lead to serious problems for California companies wanting to hire or retain the brightest members of the young-adult generation.

          In San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, where prices have skied in the last three years, 50 out of every 100 households that apply for new home mortgages are buying in nearby counties like Alameda and Contra Costa, where prices are significantly lower. Contra Costa’s median sales price over the last year, for example, was less than half San Francisco’s for comparable properties.

          Now this problem is spreading to nearby Alameda County, home to cities like Oakland and Berkeley, where 34 percent of home loan applications    are for areas even farther from the Bay Area’s urban core.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the millennial population decreased by 7.4 percent between 2005 and 2015, with many 18-to-35s decamping to places like Austin, Tex., Charlotte and Houston. The technology industry is strong in those places, but real estate prices and rents are half or less than for comparable properties in the most trendy parts of Los Angeles.

          Overall, says CoreLogic, home prices were up 71 percent in California in that time, with the median statewide home price in mid-2016 reaching $428,000.

          There is no backlash yet, mostly because of foreign buyers, who tend to be among their countries’ affluent, seeking a safe place to invest their riches. The leading buyers of this type have lately been mainland Chinese.

          “This makes it harder for the average person to make a living (in California),” said Sam Khater, a CoreLogic economist. “That means less teachers, fire fighters, retail workers and more. It’s causing the entire state to be more expensive.”

          Or, as a Silicon Valley executive complained earlier this year, “I pay some of my people with master’s degrees $70,000 and $80,000 a year and they still have no hope of buying a house anywhere near where they work.”

          Some locales are trying to compensate for this by subsidizing teacher housing, from kindergarten to the college level. For sure, real estate prices are a recruiting barrier when companies and schools seek to hire top talent from places like Texas and Arizona, where median home prices are barely half California’s level.

          Some places are trying to solve the problem with affordable housing, generally apartments or condominium units that builders are required to include in new developments along with market-rate housing. This kind of affordable property usually bears a resale price limit, with city and school employees often getting priority on the long waiting lists for them.

          But those same new developments, when placed in already crowded urban areas, add to traffic volume which is not notably reduced even by new public transit that has opened in parts of Los Angeles and other areas.

          It’s a real quandary for California: The state needs talented young workers to fuel its innovative industries, but even those who earn more than $200,000 yearly have difficulty qualifying for mortgages on homes selling for more than $1 million, increasingly common in this state.

          But acting to artificially reduce real estate prices would impact the resources of millions of Californians who have lived here for a generation or two.

          So far, there is no answer to this dilemma, which sees more and more companies forced to open satellite facilities in more affordable states.

     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 For more Elias columns, go to




Ask the residents of San Jose’s drying-out Rock Springs neighborhood and other nearby areas if it pays to ignore warnings about future disasters that seem in normal times to be nothing more than distant, negative fantasies.

          During the heavy rains of February, when a crisis caused by a poorly-built spillway at the Oroville Dam drew worldwide headlines, the San Jose neighborhood and areas around it suffered at least $50 million of avoidable damage to private property and about $23 million in public property damage. Some estimates of the total toll come to more than $100 million.

          That’s in addition to $22 million in emergency fixes the city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District now propose.

          Avoidable? Unnecessary? You bet. Even as 14,000 residents of the flood plain of San Jose’s Coyote Creek were forced to flee, local water district officials remembered their early 2000’s dealings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with managing flood controls all over the country.

          But the Corps opted not to work on Coyote Creek. After five years of negotiating with the Santa Clara Valley Water District to create levees and other improvements keeping water away from low-lying Rock Springs, the Corps begged off. It cited an obscure rule forbidding projects when their cost is more than the likely damage from a single major flood.

          Oops. The cost of the improvements protecting Rock Springs would have been about $7.4 million. That’s less than 10 percent of the damage inflicted by Coyote Creek in February.

          The total of actual damages and possible new flood control measures make the 2003 statement of Lt. Col Michael McCormick, then the Army Corps’ district commander in San Francisco, look silly: “The economic evaluation found the benefits, i.e. the reduction in flood damages, were not significant enough to justify the costs of improvement,” he said.

          McCormick is long gone, but residents are still trying to replace or repair cars that were flooded up to the hoods and homes and contents flooded and muddied well up their interior walls. There’s also the coming issue of mold.

          In a way, this was similar to what happened at Oroville, where environmental groups warned in 2005 that inadequate spillways could cause damage to the dam itself and lead to Feather River flooding downstream. The fix they recommended would have addressed precisely the problems behind this winter’s almost 200,000 evacuations and would have cost far less than the $200 million to $600 million that repairs and restructuring will now run. But the state Water Project, which operates the dam, and the water districts benefiting most from supplies it captures, downplayed potential damages.

          Both scenes resemble the old television commercials where a mechanic held up an oil filter while intoning “You can pay me now (for this), or you can pay me later (much more).”

          Californians will be paying much more now than if warnings had been heeded.

          Other warnings exist all over California. More than 1,000 bridges need seismic updating to avoid major damage in earthquakes. Potential future consequences of ignoring that kind of warning were clear in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which knocked down freeway bridges and impeded traffic for months. Also in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which led to the hyper-expensive rebuilding of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and destroyed the top level of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, killing 39 persons.

          There are also many warnings about dams: An example is Santa Clara County, where five of ten existing reservoirs cannot be filled to more than two-thirds capacity for fear of seismic collapse. Wasted capacity there could provide enough water for 280,000 persons for a full year.

          And there are warnings about many thousands of homes and buildings not yet retrofitted to withstand the next large nearby earthquake. This may cost homeowners several thousand dollars each, exact amounts varying, but a fix could keep them in homes that might otherwise be red-tagged as unfit for human occupation.

          None of these other items are drawing anything like the emergency response they should, nor will they until or unless there’s a crisis.

          At which point, like Coyote Creek and the Oroville Dam, they’ll have to be fixed fast, at a much higher cost than today’s estimates.


     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, go to




          The specter of peaches and oranges and apricots and artichokes rotting on the ground or on trees hangs over California agriculture this spring, in the wake of a series of immigration raids during the first months of President Trump’s administration.

          If you want to know why it’s not merely undocumented immigrants who fear the prospect of more and larger raids – the first set in February saw federal agents net about 600 persons in this country illegally nationwide and a reported 109 in California – it helps to look back to the early 2000s. There is no accurate count of how many have been rounded up since.

          Illegal immigration, of course, was already a hot political topic 15 years ago, in the wake of the 1997 Proposition 187, which sought to bar the undocumented and their children from public schools and health clinics and almost all other public services in California. Most of 187’s provisions were thrown out by federal judges within a year of its passage, but the memory of the 65 percent “yes” vote on the measure was still vivid.

          So Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then in her second full term, decided to check on how much of the unemployment problem then and now serious in both California and the entire nation could be chalked up to the undocumented taking jobs away from U.S. citizens who wanted them.

          She arranged for every office of the state Employment Development Department to list menial, farm-related jobs like strawberry picking that were actually available at the time. Absolutely none of the many thousands of citizens then drawing unemployment benefits in California bit on those jobs, even though everyone on unemployment must report job-seeking efforts in order to get a check.

          The reasonable conclusion from this experiment – which has not since been repeated anywhere – was that unemployed U.S. citizens were not interested in the kind of low-paid, seasonal, menial and physically demanding jobs that often attract illegal immigrants to California and other parts of America. That’s one big reason for this estimate from the American Farm Bureau Federation: Between 50 percent and 70 percent of all farm workers in this country are here illegally.

          The fear of farmers in the Central Valley, who turned out in big numbers for Trump’s single fund-raising dinner in California last fall, is that nothing much has changed over the last 15 years in the way American citizens view these jobs, even if the minimum wage is now a lot higher than before.

          California farmers clearly hope immigration raids that so far have targeted some textile workshops, other non-farm businesses and have masqueraded at times as “gang sweeps,” stay far away from their fields.

          Farmers here saw what happened in the weeks between Alabama’s adoption in 2011 of the nation’s harshest-ever anti-illegal immigrant law and when it was largely struck down by courts. That law required police to check the immigration status of all suspects and turn any illegals over to federal authorities. For awhile, school officials had to demand birth certificates from new pupils. The undocumented still cannot conduct business of any kind with state or local government there other than paying state sales and gasoline taxes.

          After the Alabama law passed, many employers reported massive absenteeism, as droves of illegals stayed home from work for fear of immigration raids. Tomato farms reported fewer than half their workers showed up the next week and chicken farmers said many of their workers also flew the coop. The same for plant nurseries, building contractors and more. Prices for tomatoes and other produce rose quickly up and down the East Coast.

          This lasted months before state officials tacitly relented and many workers returned. But U.S. citizens did not apply for the vacant jobs.

          One California farmer fearing Trump-ordered raids told the New York Times that “If you have only legal labor, certain parts of this industry would not exist. If we sent all these people back, it would be a total disaster.”

          It’s not that the undocumented workers are low-paid, either. That same farmer said many of his undocumented employees have worked for him more than a decade and now make upwards of $11 per hour, above the current minimum wage.

          All of which explains why farmers fear stricter immigration enforcement almost as much as their workers.


     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, go to




          There is little doubt about who killed Whittier Police Officer Keith Boyer in late winter, or how he died: Authorities quickly identified ex-convict Michael Christopher Mejia as the culprit, also suspected of killing his cousin and stealing the cousin’s car.

          But there is plenty of debate over who and/or what is responsible for Boyer’s death. “There’s blood on the hands of Gov. Brown,” trumpeted Republican state Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford in a press release two days after the incident. He blames Brown and other Democrats for “early-release laws that ended in the…preventable death of Officer Boyer.”

          But the main law in question, the 2014 Proposition 47, wasn’t simply the work of Brown and his Democratic cohorts in the Legislature. Voters are ultimately responsible for its consequences – they passed the measure by a 59-41 percent margin, a landslide by anyone’s definition.

          This law significantly reduced the penalties for many non-violent crimes, reducing all thefts to misdemeanors if they involve $950 or less worth of cash or goods.

          Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell was among those blaming 47 and other prison reform and realignment measures, including last year’s Proposition 57, which accelerates releases for convicts with “non-violent” offenses. Because of these measures, he said, “People who were previously in county jail are now out on the streets.”

          But Mejia was anything but a non-violent offender. Most recently, he spent two years in prison for grand theft auto and attempting to steal a vehicle; his latest incarceration was in the infamous Pelican Bay prison near the Oregon state line. Earlier he did three years time for a robbery. The difference in his treatment after the new laws and what it might have been before is that his most recent parole was supervised by county officers rather than the state prison system. State officials said Mejia’s prison time was not shortened by any recent laws.

          “None of the state’s recent criminal justice reforms impacted when this individual was released from state prison,” said a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

          That didn’t assuage Boyer’s boss, Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper. “We need to wake up,” he said. “You’re passing these propositions…It’s not good for your community; it’s not good for our officers.”

          Mejia had been held for brief periods before Boyer’s death for parole violations like a Feb. 2 incident where he ran from police responding to an anonymous 911 call.

          Some critics of the prison system maintain the recent initiatives worsen the aggressiveness of convicts rather than leading them to reform.

          By doing as much time as he would have before the reforms and going through brief revolving-door county jail stints for relatively minor parole violations, Mejia was a fairly typical denizen of the criminal justice system.

          Knowing this, but wishing to assign blame somehow, politicians like Los Angeles County Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger – one a Democrat, the other a Republican – asked both the state and federal attorneys general to assess the case and review the effects of both 47 and 57 on crime. So far, state officials say there is no evidence of any crime increase due to either measure. Which could mean that Mejia’s alleged crime was simply a matter of chance: Some such episodes will occur every year no matter what the laws say.

          This may be correct, but it’s a conclusion that won’t satisfy any crime victims, and especially not anyone who knew the 27-year-old Boyer.

          There are, of course, other ways besides crime statistics to measure the impact of the new prison-emptying laws. For example, Prop. 47 earmarks much of the money it saves prisons and jails for mental health and drug treatment programs, a plan intended to cushion the effects of making most drug possessions into mere minor offenses.

          But enrollment in drug treatment programs has been down across the state since 2014, a sign many addicts no longer feel pressure to escape their habit because they know they’ll never do significant time for using or for most crimes they employ to support their addictions. Mejia, for one, was caught with a small amount of methamphetamine in one of his parole violations.

          So it’s apparent at least some provisions of the new laws are not working. But it remains highly debatable whether that means Boyer’s slaying and other recent cop-killings can be blamed on those measures.

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

Monday, March 13, 2017




          After more than three years of steadfastly denying that increased enrollment of foreign and out-of-state students could endanger the very California identity of the University of California, it is stunning and encouraging to see the 10-campus system do an about face.

          That’s the upshot of two moves made by the university’s Board of Regents, who voted overwhelmingly last fall to increase in-state enrollment at the elite university by 10,000 in-staters before the 2018-2019 school year. The increase will come in increments of 5,000 next fall and 2,500 students each of the next two academic years, the gradual process needed as new quarters are built for the larger student body.

          Regents took their second step in late winter, setting a 20 percent systemwide cap on students from outside California.

          The two-prong approach is a direct response to political pressure applied by parents of students with stellar grades who nevertheless have had problems getting admitted to UC campuses of their choice.

          The second step is more of a reassurance to parents and students than an actual reduction, since UC as this term began – at an all-time peak in out-of-state enrollment – had 34,673 out-of-staters on campus out of 210,170 undergraduates, or 16.5 percent of the student body. A state audit last year showed non-resident enrollment was up 432 percent over the last 10 years, while in-state enrollment had risen just 10 percent.

          But the out-of-state load often seems much higher than that because those students – especially foreign students – are concentrated on UC’s most desired and prestigious campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego, all of which enroll more than 20 percent from outside the state.

          How effective was parental and student political pressure? Put simply, money eventually talked to UC officials. The university system conceded for years that one reason it takes so many out-of-staters is that they pay far more tuition than in-staters: about $27,000 a year more, a total of about $550 million in the last academic year.

          This money helped the university to some extent in compensating for a series of budget cuts inflicted during the years of Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whom claimed to support education, but consistently tightened UC’s purse-strings. This meant less construction of everything from laboratories to dormitories and sometimes interfered with recruiting of elite faculty, who could get higher salary offers elsewhere.

          But in recent months, state legislators have pressured the university to favor California admissions more, or pay a price. They offered $18.5 million in financial incentives if UC allowed in more Californians and capped its non-resident enrollment. That’s just what the Regents have now done, and they should soon reap the benefits.

          All this will not reduce the quality of competition for spots at UC, especially its best-known campuses. UCLA, for example, last spring became the first American university receiving more than 100,000 applications for spots in its fall class. The campus added 1,000 Californians this year, but still has three times as many non-resident students as it had just nine years ago. The 1,000-student in-state increase helped rectify a 4 percent drop of in-state students over the last nine years.

          But overall, the gains of out-of-staters will not be reversed anytime soon, even while the needs of many more solid California high school graduates are met. UC might need somehow to convince more foreign students and students from Eastern states to enroll at campuses like Riverside and Merced and Santa Cruz, which now have relatively few out-of-staters. But their overall number will not drop, nor will their financial support, which officials say was critical as the university system maintained most of its high standards while state funding dropped during the Great Recession.

          The upshot of all this is that the outrage of California parents who watched for years while their children met every requirement for UC admission – and still didn’t get in – has produced results.

          It’s one of the rare times in recent memory that legislators and other top state officials actually heeded their constituents. There’s always hope this might lead to more responsiveness by those same officials in other areas ranging from utility regulation to highway maintenance and more.

     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