- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

June 6

Orange County Register on low-performing schools:

A couple of big decisions are coming up for California students in the state’s worst-performing schools. First, the California Supreme Court will decide in the coming weeks whether to hear an appeal in Vergara v. California.

In Vergara, nine plaintiffs contended state statutes were biased against poor students because “last-in, first-out” teacher layoffs mean that, during a budget crunch, talented young teachers, who are more likely to be assigned to low-income areas, are laid off before less capable teachers with more seniority. And it’s almost impossible to dismiss incompetent teachers, who often get relegated to schools in poor areas, to the detriment of the kids.

In 2014, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu sided with the plaintiffs. He found, “Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

Unfortunately, in April the California 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned that decision. On May 24, the plaintiffs and their lawyers, whose case is funded by Students Matter, an education reform group, decided to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court. We urge it to take up the case.

In a related development, Assembly Bill 934 addresses some of the problems highlighted by the Vergara trial. Authored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, AB934 would increase the time to earn tenure from 18 months to three years. And, to make it easier to fire incompetent teachers, the bill would “authorize proceedings based solely on charges of unsatisfactory performance.”

AB934 passed the Assembly unanimously on May 22. The bill will be heard this month in the state Senate Education Committee.

“We hope the Senate will make AB934 stronger,” Manny Rivera told us; he’s the director of Rally, a communications firm working with Students Matter. “We need to start putting students first, not adults. AB934 addresses some of the issues in the Vergara lawsuit,” including teacher tenure and layoff decisions. However, even should the bill pass, he said, the Vergara plaintiffs still might pursue their appeal to a final decision.

We encourage the Senate to improve AB934, such as by granting tenure only after four years, then pass it. The California Constitution guarantees, “A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence (is) essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people.” And the 1976 California Supreme Court decision Serrano v. Priest stipulated public schools must provide “substantially equal opportunities for learning.”

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature have acknowledged the problem of low-performing schools in poor areas by creating the Local Control Funding Formula to funnel extra money to these schools. But, more than money, what’s needed is quality teachers.

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June 7

Pasadena Star News on being prepared for another recession:

Economic downturns are always painful, but a little fiscal prudence helps some weather the storms better than others. California is not among the fiscally responsible, however, a recent Moody’s Investors Service report finds.

In an analysis of the four most populous states in the nation - California, Texas, New York and Florida - Moody’s found that California was least prepared for the next recession, while Texas would likely fare the best.

“California trailed the (other) three due to its revenue volatility, weak financial flexibility and lower reserve levels,” a Moody’s news release about the report stated.

“Historically, California has shown vulnerability as the center of the highly volatile tech industry and is reliant on personal income taxes, while Florida was the epicenter of the most recent housing slump,” Emily Raimes, a Moody’s vice president and senior credit officer, said in a statement. Since 1990, California experienced the largest single-year revenue decline, 17.2 percent, while Florida lost 12 percent during the housing collapse. By contrast, Texas lost only 8.5 percent when oil prices dipped and New York fell just 6.5 percent during the Wall Street downturn.

While Texas has more than three times the reserves needed to cover a projected revenue shortfall in the event of a recession, California has less than 1 time the coverage. Moreover, Texas’ ability to make midyear spending cuts without a broad legislative vote offers it much greater financial flexibility, a Dallas Business Journal column notes.

A study on the states’ fiscal positions from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University came to a similar conclusion, ranking California the 44th weakest.

“California’s fiscal performance is weak across several categories,” the study concluded, and the state “is heavily reliant on debt” on a long-run basis.

Among the subcategories analyzed, California ranked 42nd in terms of debt, which includes unfunded pension liabilities, 46th in long-run solvency, a measure of whether the state has enough assets to shield it from economic shocks or long-term fiscal risks, and 47th in cash solvency, a measure of whether the state has enough cash to cover its short-term bills.

“It would be short-sighted in the extreme to now embark upon a host of new spending only to see massive cuts when the next recession hits,” Gov. Jerry Brown warned lawmakers when he released his budget proposal in January. To further hammer the point home, he referenced Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper during the unveiling of his May budget revision.

While other states are more representative of the industrious ants, California remains the lazy grasshopper unprepared for the hardships of winter. When winter inevitably comes, rather than taking the opportunity to get the state’s fiscal house in order, expect lawmakers and special-interest groups to seek yet another taxpayer handout to keep the spending binge going.

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June 7

Sacramento Bee on cutting out-of-state enrollment in the University of California system:

One of the best things about California is its public higher education. Families elsewhere would give their eye teeth to have an in at a UC Berkeley or UCLA.

And they do. Out-of-state students pay some $37,000 to attend the University of California, roughly triple the in-state tuition. That money has come in handy. During the recession, when the state slashed UC support, supplemental nonresident tuition allowed the university to avoid turning away Californians.

Now that the recession is over, there’s nervousness over out-of-state UC admissions. Though nowhere near as high as in other state schools - more than 40 percent of the University of Michigan’s freshmen, for instance, are out-of-staters - rising nonresident enrollment at flagship UCs has fueled fear that Californians are being crowded out of their own university.

The UC undergraduate student body is still, overall, 85 percent Californian. And the university still makes a space, at some campus, for every California applicant whose grades and test scores meet the criteria for admission. Out-of-state enrollment has been capped at current levels at UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, and two-thirds of the eligible California undergraduates who apply still get into at least one of their top UC choices.

But at the flagship UCs, up to about 24 percent of enrolled undergraduates come from elsewhere, and every disappointed child adds to the pressure on state lawmakers to get more Californians into high-demand UCs. Unfortunately, the suggestions so far have been overly politicized and counterproductive. Take Assembly Bill 1711, pending in the Senate after passage by the Assembly last week.

Authored by Assemblymen Jose Medina, D-Riverside, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, the bill would force the UC, over the next six years, to cut out-of-state enrollment by 10,000 students while adding 30,000 new berths for Californians. The bill also would cap out-of-state enrollment at 10 percent and gradually raise out-of-state tuition to about $54,000, which is more than nonresidents pay in the Ivy League.

The bill makes no provision for jamming the equivalent of a whole new UC campus into already overwhelmed dorms and classrooms. In fact, Medina and McCarty want to chip in substantially less state money than in the past for the additional students; they want UC to make up the difference by cutting spending and soaking the few out-of-staters who remain.

It’s a strange, punitive proposal, apparently spawned by an equally strange state audit ordered up last year in the heat of a budget fight between Gov. Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano. Bureaucracies can always tighten their belts, and maybe the non-California market will bear more than we’re currently charging. But jamming the university full of kids without desks and beds while cutting its funding hardly seems like the answer.

After all, the UC is one of the best things about California. So here’s an idea: Why not just admit that it matters to us, and pay for it?

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June 7

Fresno Bee on a state program meant to encourage shoppers to purchase food from farmers markets

Last year, California passed a modest bill that should have been a no-brainer. The California Nutrition Incentives Act set up a program to discount fruits and vegetables for CalFresh shoppers at farmers markets and farm stands.

Like the wholesome produce it was aimed at, the new program had ridiculous upsides: Healthier food for low-income families. More business for small farmers. Rural jobs. Matching federal dollars. An established pilot with a solid, years-long track record tied neatly to California’s version of food stamps.

All that remained was a little state money to attract matching funds authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill when, at the last minute - in a fit of fiscal restraint or low blood sugar, we aren’t sure which - state lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown blanked the appropriation.

Talk about penny-wise and pound foolish. If there were ever a piece of low-hanging fruit in the public health effort to curb obesity and Type 2 diabetes among Californians, this is it.

The 6-year-old pilot program for these nutrition incentives has been wildly successful, and it has only been matching the first $10 or so worth of purchases at farmers markets. In Davis, the program, known as Market Match, has increased CalFresh purchases at the farmers market by up to 293 percent.

In 2014, Market Match leveraged just $450,000 worth of incentives into more than $2 million in revenue for participating growers. With the mechanism in place to take the program statewide, food policy advocates have asked the state to invest $5 million - pocket change in a state budget topping $122 billion.

That small appropriation would draw down $5 million in federal matching funds from a $100 million pot, and leverage up to $60 million in additional purchases of fruits and vegetables from local farmers. Food policy advocates say those purchases, in turn, will generate some 1,900 jobs on small farms.

California’s failure to tap into these federal matching funds is the public health equivalent of food waste, and the state money involved is minimal. Market Match isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it’s a smart little program that could make a big difference. Let’s try not starving it this year.

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