Monday, September 30, 2019




       “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss,” went the refrain in the 1971 hit record “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who. It’s also a pretty fair description of today’s situation at the California Public Utilities Commission, now staffed partly by new commissioners not present during most of the agency’s debacles of this decade.

       Things look very different on the surface in part because the five-member commission now has four female members for the first time since its founding more than 100 years ago.

       The trouble is, things really are not very different. This agency, which regulates prices and practices at most of the state’s electric, natural gas, water and some telephone operations, has been caught favoring and colluding with electric and gas companies repeatedly. Many see its rate-setting proceedings as charades akin to a Japanese kabuki dance that features lots of activity, but a predetermined outcome.

       The process in the commission’s first major proceeding with two freshly minted members appointed by new Gov. Gavin Newsom, including the agency president, appears pretty much like it’s been during decades of male domination.

       The PUC’s newest responsibility is to determine whether customers of California’s three big privately-owned electric companies should pay a monthly fee of about $1.50 each for the next 15 years to put $10.5 billion into the new state Wildfire Fund for payment of utility liabilities in future big fires. In effect, this would continue a charge consumers have paid since 2002 for electricity the state bought during the energy crunch early this century. That charge was supposed to disappear this year. Now it will continue.

Beneficiaries include Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co., all found responsible for starting massive wildfires in recent years.

       The legal rub here is that before customers can be dunned, state law requires the PUC to conduct a proceeding to decide whether any new charge is “just and reasonable.”

       Yet, the state went ahead and provided a loan of $2 billion to the new fund from money saved up by the California Earthquake Commission via quake insurance premiums paid by policy holders. How earthquake claims would be paid if a major temblor hits during the year or two before that money is repaid by utility customers is a great unknown, but the money nevertheless quickly came out of the state’s Surplus Money Investment Fund.

That transfer pretty much coincided with the PUC setting a date for its required proceeding, and long before any determination that the fee is just and reasonable. In fact, no evidence has even been collected so far aside from governor’s office reports on wildfire costs and liability, which are neither sworn testimony nor other legal evidence of the sort needed in a PUC proceeding.

Essentially, the commission decided before its required proceeding to let the Wildfire Fund have the money and then take it back from electric customers. But it did that without any evidence justifying the move.

   This amounts to legally premature “pre-decisional decision-making,” says consumer attorney Michael Aguirre, who recently won back more than $1 billion in consumer funds the PUC had awarded SoCal Edison to pay for decommissioning its defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

The seemingly illegal move came after Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen, in charge of the required (but apparently greased) proceeding, determined there was no need for evidentiary hearings over the new 15-year charge to consumers.

Aguirre, a former elected San Diego city attorney, argued this demonstrated bias by Rechtschaffen and demanded he be disqualified from the ratemaking proceeding on the new charge. The other commissioners unanimously denied Aguirre’s motion and Rechtschaffen stays in charge of what now looks like the newest PUC kabuki dance.

Essentially, the commission held that because Rechtschaffen has no financial interest in any utility, he should stay. He may have no formal utility stake, but he has a long history of favoring the companies over their customers, including memos he authored on the San Onofre case while still an advisor to ex-Gov. Jerry Brown.

       It all adds up to business as usual at the scandal-ridden PUC, despite pledges to change its culture and clean up its act.

    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 easy to find an obvious motive for President Trump’s well-documented and much-ballyhooed “war” on California. After all, this state in 2016 gave Hillary Clinton a margin of more than 3 million votes over Trump and he’s felt hurt and angry over it ever since.

          He’s taken action after action against this state’s best interests, one example his September attempt to eliminate California’s unique authority the early-1970s Clean Air Act to regulate its own air quality. Even though Trump and his handpicked chief of the federal Environmental Protection Agency moved the other day to revoke that ability, most legal authorities say he can’t actually do it because California’s right to fix its air was granted by Congress, not the President of that time, Republican Richard Nixon.

          Presidents have a lot of executive authority, those legal experts say, but they cannot unilaterally reverse acts of Congress.

          Showing its whimsical nature, Trump’s administration shortly after announced it would withhold highway funds from dozens of California areas because they don’t meet federal clean air standards – even though some of the affected areas do in fact meet those standards. So Trump wants to penalize California for having dirty air at the same time he seeks to take away its ability to clean up that same air. Go figure, or as Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein deadpanned, the combined moves “seem counterintuitive.”

Trump also threatens to withhold federal grants from police in California’s many “sanctuary cities.” He warned he would cut federal wildfire aid and penalize San Francisco because its homeless population allegedly dumps human waste and hypodermic needles into the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Except they don’t do that.

          Time after time, Trump trumpets actions against California, with the state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, reacting with lawsuits like a Pavlovian laboratory dog.

          But does Trump really mean all this seriously, when he’s had so little success at it? Or is another agenda at work here?

          This question arises because the pre-presidency Trump was in effect a carnival barker, always aware of the legendary circus impresario P.T. Barnum’s observation that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Trump the showman understood while running his reality television show that, as a New York Times television critic observed, “the only rule is that there are no rules.”

          He carried this sense over into his presidency, where a day rarely goes by without some crisis, be it a threat to bomb Iran or one to punish California. Trump also knows that California-bashing is a longtime, popular national pastime everywhere outside the Golden State.

          So when Trump blasts America’s longtime allies and cozies up to the most murderous of foreign dictators, it may all be for show, with the sense that as long as he keeps America entertained, he can get on with his real interest, which is making profits.

          It’s an approach completely unlike any previous President, and one whose ultimate consequences are unknown as an impeachment inquiry gets started. But it is fairly clear that Trump stands little chance of making good on most of the attacks he’s made against California.

          Top state officials say they are fairly certain of that, despite a Supreme Court that’s upheld some other unprecedented Trump actions, like his condoning the caging of small immigrant and refugee children.

          Said Gov. Gavin Newsom, who seems to enjoy sparring with Trump, and so is part of the President’s new show, “If Trump prevails, we will have more asthma in California…and other diseases. But that’s the state of things today in this country…We will fight back when he goes after our Dreamers and our health standards. And we will win in the courts.”

          Added Becerra, “If the arguments in the President’s tweets are the arguments they will use to propel (legal actions), then we’re looking pretty good and we will enjoy facing them in court.”

          The trick here is to see Trump’s real apparent motive: Less to hurt California or the potential victims of his actions than to keep the spotlight constantly on himself, impeachment investigation or not, and thereby help ensure another presidential term and even more personal profits while he steers government and foreign spending to his many properties.

    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

Monday, September 23, 2019





There were smiles all around and a lot of back-slapping the other day, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of bills he firmly believes will work quickly toward ending California’s undeniable housing problems of high prices and low availability.

The package imposes rent controls statewide, despite last year’s vote on Proposition 10 which saw the majority in 56 of 58 California counties oppose similar controls for fear they would discourage building of enough new apartments to seriously dent the availability shortage. There are also new limits on single-family zoning, designed to encourage building of backyard “grandma” units, and provisions that may encourage some companies to buy up existing homes, then install new partitions to create a dozen or more rental units in one house.

The new laws will also lower fees on low-income housing projects and forbid local moratoria on new housing.

But one underlying question remains unanswered: Can California legislate its way out of the housing crisis? It’s a query similar to what was asked during the 1960s, an era when the federal government passed myriad laws banning racial discrimination in voting, housing, employment, education and other parts of life. “You can’t legislate morality,” critics said then. But it’s turned out differently. America is far from free of discrimination, but official racial discrimination has been largely turned around, to the point where some cities and states now face lawsuits over alleged “reverse discrimination,” which claim minorities get hiring preference over whites who are equally or more qualified.

California realtors don’t phrase it the same way opponents of civil rights laws once did, but their argument is essentially the same: The state can create conditions it thinks should increase or enhance the building of new homes, be they apartments or condominiums or individual houses, but it can’t make anyone build or buy them.

Before developers turn their first shovel of dirt, they must be convinced they’ll make a profit. These days, they apparently don’t feel that way. As of early fall, just over 111,000 permits had been issued statewide for new houses this year, 12 percent less than a year ago, according to the California Association of Realtors. Apartment development, the realtors said, was down 52 percent.

At the same time every developer in the state knew the housing law package was sure to pass the Legislature and get Newsom’s signature. Which means the new laws may not spur even nearly the 500,000 new housing units the governor has said are needed each year for the next seven in order to solve the state’s problems.

       And yet…officials charged with fighting the parallel problem of homelessness report that for every 33 persons they can place in the transition quarters now going up in various parts of the state, 150 more persons will become homeless, largely because of high rent and other affordability problems.

       This poses an enormous conundrum: High rents have driven thousands to live in the streets, either in tents or vehicles, but without high rents, who’s going to build enough new apartments to resolve the shortage?

       If there’s a solution to this problem, it may be geographic. Why not build much of the new housing where land is cheap rather than forcing cities in the state’s most expensive, affluent ZIP codes to allow more construction? For in many areas, especially along the coast and in the Silicon Valley, land prices are the single largest expense in homebuilding and – along with demand – the foremost driver of high prices.

       Newsom has tried to be completely egalitarian about enforcing his policies, which dictate that all cities approve new housing permits in amounts proportional to their existing population. That has not worked. The inventory of unsold homes did not shrink in the last year, stymying new development that could resolve at least part of the problem.

       The new laws, wrote CAR president Jared Martin the other day, will “make it more difficult for hard-working Californians to find an affordable place to live.”

       So why not earmark some of the state’s current $21 billion budget surplus for building new housing where land is cheap, fees low and regulations minimal? That would be the Central Valley and some desert areas of Southern California.

     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 were few mysteries during the California Legislature’s just-concluded main session of 2019. With majorities topping two-thirds in both the Assembly and state Senate, the lawmakers fulfilled most of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign promises from last year.

       There was action on housing, even if it likely won’t make much of a dent in homelessness or the affordability crisis. Preschool education got a boost and the outreach of government health insurance has been expanded. Plus a big move to undermine the gig working economy. And much more.

       But there was one real mystery: Why did Newsom insist not just once, but twice within three months, on watering down SB 276, the effort by the Legislature’s only doctor to close loopholes allowing some children to avoid vaccinations required for public school enrollment? Is the governor a closet anti-vaxxer, even though he insists that all four of his children have been inoculated with no problems?  Or did he just want to simplify the measure?

       The bill eventually signed by Newsom was exponentially weaker than the original version proposed by Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento, who is vilified regularly by anti-vaccination activists and was even physically assaulted by one on a street in his district. Back in 2015, Pan wrote the bill that ended the religious exemption from vaccination requirements, leaving medical waivers the only way parents can keep from vaccinating their kids and still enroll them in schools. Ex-Gov. Jerry Brown signed that one.

       But medical waivers quickly became a major loophole, leading some public schools to have vaccination rates well below the 95 percent experts say is needed to prevent the occasional epidemic of sometimes fatal diseases like measles, rubella, pertussis and polio. That may be one reason California has experienced several significant outbreaks in recent years, including 40 cases of measles last spring, while national caseloads of diseases that were once thought extinct have reached levels unseen in decades.

       Hundreds, maybe thousands, of parents sought out the very few doctors who believe the unproven calumny that vaccinations can cause autism and other serious reactions. Most such doctors charged about $300 to sign a medical exemption, some allegedly without even seeing the children involved. One doctor, for example, signed almost one-third of all medical exemptions in the 130,000-student San Diego Unified school district.

       Pan sought to close that loophole by having the state health department vet all such waivers, okaying only those for children with organ transplants and a few other conditions.

       Newsom bridled at that. In June, he said, “I don’t want…someone the governor appointed making a decision that is very personal.” That seemingly put vaccinations in the realm of personal choice rather than public health. But Pan revised his bill so the vetting process would apply only to doctors who sign more than five waivers in any year. That seemed to satisfy Newsom. So Pan’s bill – called a “no-brainer” by one major Republican political consultant, cruised though the Legislature.

Until late August, that is. Newsom suddenly weighed in again, and now the law has been further weakened to apply only to exemptions written after next Jan. 1. It also no longer requires doctors to certify under penalty of perjury that what they’re saying is accurate and it lets existing exemptions stand until children reach the next grade level where updated vaccinations are required.

       That’s a huge softening of Pan’s original bill, all at Newsom’s insistence. Yet, two requests for the governor to explain his motives (submitted through press secretary Nathan Click) went unanswered. Newsom was questioned about it during a press conference, though, and still did not explain. He said only that he “felt that we needed to clarity some additional points…” and that “I’m proud I listened to both sides of this debate…”

       Does this mean Newsom is devolving into a whimsical Donald Trump-like figure who equates fly-by-night shibboleths promoted on social media with proven medical science? Newsom won’t say, but did allow that it was a “novel thing” to be questioned about his motives.

       Newsom surely doesn’t like being compared with Trump, and knows what he can do to prevent it in the future. In the meantime, his motives on vaccination remain a mystery.

     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

Monday, September 16, 2019




       The question has persisted since Donald Trump began running for President with a series of lies about everything from his background to claims that groups of Muslims cheered as they watched the World Trade Center collapse from across the Hudson River in Jersey City:

       Why don’t all those lies (10,796 as of last spring, since he took office, according to Politifacts) hurt Trump at all among his base supporters?

       For sure they don’t, even in California, where he is least popular of any state in the Union, with an approval rating in the low 30 percent range. That’s about the same percentage as the votes he drew in 2016, meaning the same folks who believed and believed in Trump then, still do.

       Psychological research conducted primarily at Stanford University between the late 1940s and early ‘60s provides some answers. This material became known as the theory of cognitive dissonance.

       One portion of the theory goes something like this: People who believe in someone will believe almost anything he or she says, also refusing to believe almost anything negative about them.

       Or, as Trump famously put it during a 2016 campaign stop, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”

       And so, when a widely published advice columnist claims he raped her in a department store fitting room about 30 years ago, he loses no support by saying it never happened, he never met the woman and besides, “She’s not my type.” There is no impact when, the next day, a photo turns up showing the two conversing animatedly at about the time of the alleged incident. Trump didn’t even have to cry “fake news.” It’s as if he were asking supporters the old question: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” His backers choose not to believe or care about what they see.

       That’s almost the ultimate in cognitive dissonance.

       It was the same when Trump claimed while a 2016 candidate to have become pals with Russian President Vladimir Putin while waiting together in a “60 Minutes” green room before each went on the show, and no one batted an eye. Never mind that Trump was interviewed for that program in his penthouse office in New York while Putin appeared from his Kremlin office 8,000 miles away. Neither saw the innards of any green room. This was a complete fabrication.

       When asked about this and other lies by former TV host Bill O’Reilly, Trump responded that “I didn’t have time to check the facts.” So by his admission, he just made it up, as he did when claiming that 81 percent of white murder victims are killed by blacks. The facts? The vast majority of white murder victims are killed by other whites. But lies rarely harm Trump’s poll standing or reduce his base of support.

       This kind of thing has not worked for most other presidents and presidential candidates. But it did work for California’s muscleman former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised to take no campaign donations from special interests, but began collecting big money the next day from car dealers and oil companies.

       No matter…some polls indicate if Schwarzenegger could run today, he would easily be elected governor again.

       It’s all about celebrity and cognitive dissonance. Because Trump, like Schwarzenegger, was well known long before he entered politics, both celebrities longer than millions of voters have lived, many believe they already know him and pay little heed to what he says or what others say about him, true or not.

       When Trump is loudly inconsistent, as when he tried to demolish Obamacare and then claimed to have willingly kept it going, it’s no liability.

       It’s as if a Kardashian ran for office rather than running a reality TV show. The celebrity factor outweighs anything else.

       That’s why Democrats must beware as the 2020 election prelude becomes serious. For no matter what polls may say, celebrity Trump’s lies and misstatements will never be held against him by his diehard supporters, which will always give him a chance to win another term, even if he again loses the popular vote.

    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 starting to look like the great utility breakup that’s been morally justified in California for years may at last be getting underway. Out-of-control wildfires might accomplish what civility and sensible management practices could not do.

       This may be the larger meaning of a $2.5 billion offer from San Francisco government to buy up the in-city electric assets of embattled, bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electricity Co., including power lines, meters, power poles and switching stations. The city offer excludes all PG&E natural gas assets.

       If this can happen in its headquarters city of San Francisco (even as it devised its own self-serving plan for leaving bankruptcy, PG&E did not immediately reject the offer), expect this kind of thing also to happen elsewhere. For sure, PG&E could use the money to help pay off an expected flood of liability judgments against it (over and above the $11 billion it proposes to give insurance companies) for having helped cause the raging blazes of 2017 and 2018, which burned thousands of homes and businesses and left more thousands of its customers homeless.

       If this can happen to PG&E in its home town, who’s to say it won’t also happen to Southern California Edison Co. and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co., both found similarly responsible for devastating wildfires over the last 12 years.

       Between them, these companies have been criminally convicted of negligent maintenance practices, gotten caught in illicit negotiations with government regulators aiming to bilk consumers of billions of dollars and otherwise colluded with the very regulators who were supposed to be protecting electric company customers.

       The misdeeds of both company executives and members of the state Public Utilities Commission have not seen a single individual do even one minute of jail time, despite the deaths they helped cause and the big money they unfairly took from customers.

       All that makes California’s electric providers undeserving of survival in their current form.

       Meanwhile, there’s a growing movement to replace the utilities in many of their operations. That’s the proliferating group of Community Choice Aggregations now taking root in many parts of California. These publicly-owned outfits see cities and counties buying up customer-oriented operations of the big electric providers, while using the utilities’ existing transmission lines and billing operations.

       CCAs now operate everywhere from Marin County to Manteca, from Larkspur to Los Angeles County. San Diego wants one, San Francisco has also sought to create its own, which would happen quickly if the city’s proposed purchase of PG&E assets goes forward.

       The utilities dreaded this scene for years, struggling mightily against the growing CCA tide and seeking to hang onto their monopolistic customer base, whether or not they deserved to.

       But PG&E is now desperate for money, especially after failing in an effort to get state legislators to let it issue $20 billion in bonds which might eventually have had to be paid off by customers via increased monthly bills. But PG&E and other utilities have plenty of ways to raise the money needed for their expected tens of billions in debts.

       For one, the environmental group Californians for Green Nuclear Energy (possibly an oxymoron of a moniker) now asks that legislators require PG&E to sell off the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant on the Central Coast rather than shuttering it in the 2020s, as now planned.

       Other utility company assets can also be sold, from hydroelectric dams to power lines in areas the companies serve. Doing this on a large scale could leave the existing electric companies as little more than operators of long-distance transmission lines, a much-reduced role.

       That could also give the PUC far fewer activities to regulate. Which may be why the commission has long aided the utilities’ effort to thwart CCAs, setting up rule after arbitrary rule to hinder their establishment and expansion.

       But it’s now clear many Californians no longer trust either regulators or the utilities that have long served them and gouged them. Which might make this the time for a wholesale breakup of those huge companies.

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

Monday, September 9, 2019




       There’s been a three-month hiatus in the growing phenomenon of anti-Semitism on California’s college and university campuses, but students and former students were nevertheless involved in some of the most blatant and violent of the spring and summer’s hate crimes again Jews.

       Example A was John T. Earnest, the shooter who apparently killed one and injured three others in the Chabad of Poway rampage late last April. While on campus, Earnest, a sometime student at Cal State San Marcos, picked up some ideas he later used in a rambling manifesto attempting to justify his offenses. Like anti-Semites on other campuses, those at San Marcos in north San Diego County like to say they don’t hate Jews, but are merely anti-Zionist, meaning they want Jews to be just about the only people on earth not entitled to their own country.

       That’s the same tune spouted by the partially terrorist-funded movement called Boycott, Divest and Sanction, which seeks an end to the state of Israel, its adherents often spouting a popular Palestinian nationalist slogan, “From the river to the sea.” That one refers to Palestinians not wanting to control just the lands now known as the West Bank and Gaza, but all of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

       The BDS movement has been strong on some of California’s most prominent campuses, including UCLA, Stanford University, UC Davis, UC Berkeley and San Francisco State. It spurred faux roadblocks where the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine (partially funded by the Hamas terror organization that controls the unoccupied city of Gaza) stopped Jewish students walking on the Berkeley campus with cardboard fake submachine guns.

       It caused sympathizers at UCLA to try to deny a student government seat to a properly elected Jewish woman, claiming no Jew can be fair – an anti-Semitic statement on its face. It inspired smearing Nazi-style swastikas on buildings and walls at Davis and moved a Stanford dormitory resident assistant to threat violence against Israelis and other Jewish students. And it often leads a San Francisco State professor to post BDS material on her school’s official website.

       BDS caused an attempt by Pitzer College faculty to cancel the school’s exchange program with the University of Haifa, the most diverse college in Israel, with an enrollment almost half Arab, pretty much matching the populace of that picturesque, usually peaceful seaside city. When the campus president vetoed this, the faculty voted to censure him.

       It all makes some California campuses among the most hostile to Jewish students, who for the most part are still not intimidated from attending.

       Prospects are that this year will see new incidents and further dissemination of obvious falsehoods, like the BDS canard that Israel is an apartheid state, despite the fact it has taken in thousands of black Ethiopian Jews and despite studies by Arab scholars finding Israeli Arabs enjoy more political and economic freedom than their ethnic brethren anywhere else in the Middle East.

       A midsummer U.S. Department of Justice conference on anti-Semitism reached five conclusions supporting that prospect. It said campus anti-Semitism is increasing “at an alarming rate.” It found the most common forms of campus anti-Semitism are Israel-related, denying many Jewish students the “ability to…fully participate in campus life.” It found that faculty are “major contributors to campus anti-Semitism.” And it said most university presidents and deans “have not afforded Jewish students equal protection to their peers from (threatening) behavior.”

       Much of the inaction stems from a lack of understanding of the link between Jews and the homeland that has been part of Jewish rituals and liturgy for more than 2,500 years.

       Wrote Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, “Uniquely, Jewish religion and nationhood coincide… Jewishness is not a mere ethnicity, a form of culture. In Israel, Jews are a walking lexicon of almost every ethnicity under the sun, so it’s not ethnicity. Jewish nationhood is a matter of religious vocation…”

       Which means that those who say anti-Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitism don’t get it. But lack of understanding has never deterred anti-Semites. Rather, it often inspires them to greater viciousness and violence.

       And there are few signs things will improve on campuses in California or elsewhere in the new academic year.

    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




       In a legislative season marked by a host of lousy ideas from forcing consumers to bail out negligent utilities to a refusal of warning labels on highly-sugared sodas, one good idea eventually emerged. It stands to reason this one comes not from the state Legislature itself, but from an appointed board.

       The idea: Keep track of five-year graduation rates from California’s public high schools, not just four-year ones.

       This is not merely sensible, but recognizes the new realities of a world where it is simply not practical or advisable for all high school and college students to get their diplomas within the standard four years.

       Yes, four-year high school graduation rates as reported by state officials are up considerably from the dismal 62 percent figure reported as recently as eight years ago. But those numbers were often questionable anyhow, as no system was in place to track students when they switched school districts or dropped out of standard and charter schools, switching to continuation schools and alternative schools operated by county education departments.

       Nor did they account for students forced to drop out for a year or two because of family economics, pregnancies or health emergencies, but who then returned to extension or correspondence schools and finished high school.

       So when the state Board of Education at midsummer joined many other states in giving districts and high schools credit for students who graduate in five years or more, it was merely recognizing reality in an economy where families often need more than one income to survive.

       Using only four-year graduation rates to rate and judge school districts was certainly useful when that was the only available measure. But it severely underplayed the successes of California’s often-criticized education system. Of course, four-year graduation rates will also continue to be tracked and publicized now, as they should be.

       “Many schools are making investments in serving students beyond the traditional four-year program,” Santa Clara County school superintendent Mary Ann Dewan told a reporter. “Data that reflect the true completion rate is vital to continued support for these programs.”

       In other words, Dewan suggests that reported graduation rates of only about 80 percent of students can cause public support for school funding and programs to wane, a development that could reduce actual educational opportunities open to young Californians in an era when education is more vital than ever for individual success and prosperity.

       And the schools apparently deserve more credit than they’re usually given. Former state Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson last year reported that half of all high school graduates met requirements for admission to either the University of California or the Cal State system.

       That included a 30 percent increase in eligibility for UC since 2007 and a 53 percent increase in those prepped for the Cal States.

       The numbers didn’t include students from alternative high schools, which usually serve students who have dropped out previously, been expelled or felt they just could not fit into a traditional high school. Some of these schools run online programs to make education more accessible for dropouts unable to attend any classes.

       Eventually, graduation performance by school districts that is reported to the public will include both four- and five-year rates, giving many schools credit they previously didn’t receive for innovative work and outreach. 

       The impact of the changed system will be seen most dramatically among English-learner students and low-income children, whose four-year graduation rates of about 72 percent each are significantly below the overall levels.

       The new system will also make comparisons of California schools’ performance with those of other states more accurate, as it leaves only 18 states still using only four-year graduation numbers to track school performance.

       The entire change will add an element of realism to thinking about public and charter schools, an element that might actually improve their public image and that of California as a whole.

    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