Wednesday, November 27, 2013




    Maybe it’s time to stop the steady stream of handwringing over how poorly America’s schoolkids, and California’s in particular, perform in subjects like math and science and realize they are actually doing OK, even if there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

    That’s the takeaway from 2011 test scores in the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMS), an exam given by some states and 46 other countries and provinces. The 2011 results, latest available, were released earlier this fall. (Because only nine states administered the actual TIMS tests, researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics used data from other tests to compare.)

    They show American public school students have some way to go in catching up with students in several other countries, but are far ahead of students in many others. Yes, American kids trail those in Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Russia and Finland, but they are above average and ahead of their counterparts in England, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden and Thailand, to name just a few. (

          California public schoolers are just a tad behind the American average, trailing England and New Zealand, but ahead of Sweden, Norway, Ukraine, Turkey and Chile, to name a few, on the tests given to kids in the fourth and eighth grades.

          Two factors make the California scores seem lower than they probably should: The huge number of English learners in this state’s schools and the large percentage of California kids attending private and parochial schools. English learners are at a disadvantage when taking tests administered in English – and 23.2 percent of California public school students in 2011 were English learners – while many nonpublic schools don’t bother with some standardized tests, often administering only the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam.

          Fully 8.7 percent of all California schoolkids attend non-public schools, where tuition can range above $30,000. That means results of the state’s standardized testing often don’t include the children of the state’s wealthiest and best-educated adults. This skews average test scores downward sharply, even if no one can say exactly how much.

          Meanwhile, all kids in the other countries using the TIMS tests actually take them. So California’s score of 493 on TIMS, compared with an international average of 500, is misleading for sure. It leaves out kids who will go on to found businesses like Google and the internet real estate firm Zillow, for just two examples of international companies founded by people who attended private elementary or high schools in California.

          Meanwhile, the profusion of English learners in California public schools, almost all children of parents who can’t come close to affording private school tuition, drags California scores down. These are not dumb kids, but studies have shown repeatedly that children taking time-limited tests are at a disadvantage if the tests are administered in languages other than what they speak at home.

          More than one-third of California kids taking the TIMS-related tests speak a language other than English at home. State Department of Education figures from 2011, the year of the TIMS comparisons: 1,441,387 California public school students were classified as English learners (23.2 percent of all pupils) and 2,325,748 spoke a language other than English at home (37.4 percent of all pupils).

          Considering which students are skimmed from the top before California kids even take these tests, while many thousands of others are at a great disadvantage, the California scores don’t look so bad.

          Yes, they trail the numbers from Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland, Colorado and Connecticut, to name a few high-performing states that score well above the worldwide average, but those places have nowhere near as many English learners as California.

          Meanwhile, states with almost as high a percentage of English learners – like Texas – scored below California.

          All of which suggests that California public schools are doing some things right – to get a student populace with high proportions of immigrants’ kids who are not up to par in English performing almost at the international average is no mean feat.

          At the same time, there’s plenty of work to do: Those English learners must be brought up to speed as quickly as possible so they can compete for jobs when they emerge from school. But none of this suggests an academic doomsday is approaching, as many detractors of public education often imply.

    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 could be no better Christmas present for bunches of Democratic politicians than an announcement from Gov. Jerry Brown that he will not seek a second straight term in office, fourth of his lifetime.

          Already the longest-serving governor in California history, Brown will be 76 if he stands for reelection next year and 77 barely three months into his fourth term, if reelected. The question is whether he wants to do it.

          He’s hinted he does, of course, talking occasionally about his wish to see through the budgetary reforms he instituted after being elected in 2010 and a desire for a lasting legacy of leaving the California economy in good shape.

          He had quietly raised more than $12 million toward a putative reelection campaign by late October, with no discernible need to spend any of it during the primary election season, meaning he could use it all in the fall, in case a wealthy, self-funded Republican candidate emerges from the woodwork in the next few weeks. Just such a possibility has lately emerged, with former Goldman Sachs executive Neel Kashkari saying he may run.

          But there also have been a few rumors suggesting Brown might not want to bother, that he might be ready to retire after a lifetime of having his every move and sentence parsed for deep meaning and policy implications.

          Nobody is betting on the energetic Brown retiring, but there are hints this is what some voters would like him to do, even if they have positive feelings about his performance.

          That was suggested by a November USC/Los Angeles Times poll which found more than 50 percent of Californians generally approve Brown’s performance in office, but only 32 percent saying they’re inclined to vote for him next fall. This big gap may be explained by his longevity and a sense voters might like someone new.

          Brown didn’t comment publicly on that survey, which registered public disapproval of how he’s handled prison problems and saw a paltry 38 percent of likely voters give him credit for erasing the $26 billion state deficit he inherited from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

          Brown has never let hurt feelings govern his actions. But suppose for a moment he does decide to take his ball and go home, either to his manse in the Oakland hills or his family’s ranch north of Sacramento.

          Brown’s aura of inevitable reelection – and his war chest – have prevented Republicans who seem like serious possibilities from entering the lists.

          So far, only ultra-conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and former appointive Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado are definitely in. But the dam could burst if Brown doesn’t run. Kashkari is only one of many wealthy folks in this state who believe, like previous GOP nominee Meg Whitman, that they would be terrific governors.

          A Brown withdrawal would also destroy all the decorum currently exhibited by ambitious Democrats eagerly awaiting his disappearance.

          Both Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor, and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, would love the job. So might state Controller John Chiang, whose dispassionate analyses and reports on state finances have impressed even some Republicans. Right now, Newsom and Harris are talking only about seeking reelection. Chiang, about to be termed out as controller, plans a run for treasurer, with current Assembly Speaker John Perez seeking the controller’s slot.

          It’s also possible former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an ex-Assembly speaker who never hid his yen to become governor, might enter.

          The only office now being openly contested among Democrats is secretary of state, California’s top election officer. Two termed-out state senators, Alex Padilla of Los Angeles and Leland Yee of San Francisco, are running there, along with Derek Cressman, recently head of the Common Cause good government lobby.

          There could be a considerable shift in the likely Democratic lineup if Brown opts out and others try to move up.

          The sorry state of California’s Republican Party, with fewer than 30 percent of all registered voters, now means there are not yet any formidable Republican entrants in races for the down-the-ticket offices where some Democrats plan to lurk while awaiting their chance to become governor.

          But a political earthquake is certain if Brown opts out.

    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

Thursday, November 21, 2013




          Imagine a California where polio becomes a threat to children’s health again, as it was before the 1950s, when first the Salk vaccine and later the even more effective Sabin formula threw this dreaded and crippling disease into dormancy.

    Or a California where dozens of kids die every year from pertussis, better known as whooping cough for the gasping “whoop” afflicted children often make after coughing. And more.

    There’s a possibility – slim, but still there – that a single sentence in one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing messages on an unpublicized 2012 law could open these kinds of Pandora’s boxes, at least for children of parents who want to avoid vaccinating them.

          The law, passed as Assembly Bill 2109, was intended to do the reverse. It requires documentation when the value of vaccinations to children and the community at large is explained to parents or guardians not planning to vaccinate their kids. It reiterates previous rules requiring persons opting out due to religious belief to get a signed statement from a doctor, nurse or physician’s assistant saying they’ve been told the benefits of vaccination. And it says parents must file one written statement of their beliefs and another attesting to receipt of information about vaccination.

          The idea was to improve vaccination rates and benefits by making doubly sure everyone is fully informed. But Brown stuck one wild-card sentence into his signing message, where no signing message was required.

          “I will direct the Department (of Public Health) to allow for a separate religious exemption on the form,” he said, adding that “in this way, people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations will not be required to seek a health practitioner’s signature.”

    Brown, thus, ordered a weaker approach than mandated by the law he had just signed. The Department of Public Health issued a new exemption form embodying this in October.

    From now on, any parent or guardian who doesn’t feel like getting his or her child vaccinated for polio, diphtheria, measles, rubella, mumps or pertussis has an easy out. A box on the new form even lets parents claim their religion precludes seeking medical advice.

    The vaccinations are normally required to register kids in various levels of public school, with pertussis shots before seventh grade coming at the most advanced age on the list.

    It’s a lot easier to check off a box than it would be to follow even the old rules, which the 2012 law aimed to beef up.

          That box on the new form stunned some health advocates, since it is neither mentioned nor authorized by law or regulation. It led to speculation about why Brown ordered that “separate religious exemption” on the new form.

          Diana Dooley, state Health and Human Services secretary, asserted the governor’s order “does not countermand the law.” She refused to explain how that can be, when the law provides for no easy out like Brown ordered.

          Added another Brown spokesman, “The governor believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit. This law is intended to strongly encourage people to take full advantage of vaccinations. We've also taken into account fundamental First Amendment religious freedoms through an extremely narrow exemption.”

          It all spurs fear in public health advocates mindful of the fact that California has seen thousands of whooping cough cases over the last few years, more than 9,000 in 2010 alone. In that year, 10 children died from the disease, but strong vaccination drives in the next two years reduced later tolls. Who knows what could happen with the easy exemption Brown calls “narrow?”

    What’s known is that a Johns Hopkins University study found the heaviest concentrations of 2010 pertussis cases came where the most religious exemptions were filed. (

     Which means that barriers to parents and guardians opting their charges out strictly for convenience really do aid public health.

          It will be some time before anyone can assess the effects of the new form and its dicey box, but one thing for sure: The state will now do less than it has for decades to suppress pernicious diseases that formerly caused huge health problems.

       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 was a time, and not so long ago, when politicians who flouted deeply held public feelings often faced survival threats the next time they ran for reelection.

          Those days may not be totally over in California, but for the most part they are now confined to intra-party disputes during primary elections. The times appear long gone when the Legislature’s minority party would seriously try to regain a majority in either the state Assembly or Senate as a result of votes by their political opponents.

          Republicans, with fewer than 30 percent of the state’s registered voters, harbor no illusions they will soon win back control of the Legislature. So when conservatives viscerally dislike and detest something, they are now taking the referendum route, asking voters to overturn laws before they take effect.

          California voters will see on their ballots next November some products of the GOP’s throwing in that legislative towel.

          When Democrats in the 1960s passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act banning racial and religious discrimination in real estate rentals and sales, Republicans made a strong effort to oust many of them and retake a majority.

          There has been no similar issue-driven effort in half a century.

          Before last year, Californians had not faced a serious referendum drive since 1982 (like ballot initiatives, referenda quality for the ballot by gathering voter signatures). A bipartisan popular vote then overturned the Legislature’s plan to build a Peripheral Canal to bring Northern California river water south around the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

          In 2012, voters faced one referendum, placed on the ballot by Republicans unhappy with a nonpartisan citizens commission remap of state Senate districts. The measure lost by 72-28 percent. There was some confusion, as there often is with referenda: A yes vote on the referendum actually supported the law the measure sought to overturn.

          It will be similar next year, when voters will likely face three referenda, on the social issues of gambling, abortion and gender identification.

          The anti-abortion and anti-transgender rights measures both are the work of conservative political activists, while the anti-gambling referendum is funded mostly by casino Indian tribes disliking the idea of other tribes building gaming resorts off their remote reservations. “Don’t allow gambling where it’s convenient,” they will essentially beseech voters. “Instead, keep using our remote locations.”

          In fact, more money could be spent on both sides of that referendum, which aims to overturn gambling compacts approved for two small tribes, than on the transgender- and abortion-related ones.

          The gender identification measure, which may often be called a “bathroom battle,” targets a new law letting transgender students in public schools use whichever sex rest room they feel most comfortable in. It also lets them compete in sports with the gender of their choice. So you could have some boys who identify as girls playing on girls’ teams without undergoing sex-change operations.

          The abortion-related referendum, for which signatures are now being gathered, seeks to block a new law allowing early-term abortions by specially trained nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives and physicians assistants. That law resulted from a six-year pilot program at the University of California at San Francisco which saw more than 8,000 early-term aspiration abortions conducted and no more complications than when the same procedure is done by doctors.

          The idea of that new law is to make abortions more available in more than 25 counties that now have no abortion providers.

          Leading opponent the Most Rev. Gerald Wilkerson, president of the California Catholic Conference, maintains that “Until (abortion) becomes illegal, we will oppose measures which expand it.”

          Abortion foes hope to get the same degree of volunteer support enjoyed by opponents of the new transgender law. Most signatures to quality the referendum to overturn that one were obtained by volunteers.

          But referenda are a piecemeal approach. Even in a day when they are becoming more common, voters offended by some new laws will not get a chance to try repealing most of what they dislike.

          And yet, with one party essentially giving up on taking over significant parts of the state’s decision-making process, referenda may be the only recourse for deeply offended voters.

     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