- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Dec. 19

San Diego Union Tribune on state’s response to new federal school law:

The Every Student Succeeds Act - the new federal education law replacing 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act - won vast bipartisan support in Congress, thanks to unusual political dynamics. Democrats were urged by teachers unions and some education experts to pull back from No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on extensive testing and threats of federal sanctions. Republicans were swayed by the arguments that Congress shouldn’t act as a “national school board” and that states should have broad latitude in public education.

But while national teachers unions and some education reform groups were celebrating passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the chilly reaction by some key California officials was telling - and one more sign of what a retrograde outlier the Golden State is in America’s education debate. Their gripe: While far less sweeping than No Child Left Behind, the new federal law still mandates that schools be subject to state takeover if they are at the bottom 5 percent of statewide assessments, graduate less than two-thirds of their students or have ethnic subgroups that consistently test poorly.

Why is this perceived as bad? Because the state’s education establishment, at the urging of the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, was moving to adopt a fuzzy, vague evaluation system that would make it far more difficult to judge the performance of individual teachers, schools and districts. That’s why Mike Kirst, president of the state Board of Education, lamented the rule that every state must have an “evidence-based … system of meaningfully differentiating” schools, with the primary emphasis on academics. “That language makes it sound as though, ultimately, states must boil down every factor they’re looking at and give each school a rating. If we’re forced to come up with a number, our (evaluation system) debate is over,” Kirst told The Los Angeles Times. “We can’t turn down federal aid. We should be looking at a dashboard, more than a single thing.”

Having a “dashboard” approach that includes several factors in evaluating schools is by itself not objectionable. But considering how Kirst, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Department of Education have behaved in recent years, the plan looks like one more effort to insulate teachers from meaningful evaluation - even though existing teacher protection laws have had effects so harmful to minority students that a Los Angeles trial court judge last year likened them to Jim Crow segregation laws.

If you think this conclusion is too cynical, consider what’s happened with a 2013 law - the Local Control Funding Formula - that Brown championed. Its purported goal was to get more resources to specifically help English-language learners. Instead, in district after district, much of the extra funding has been used for teacher raises, with the blessing of Brown, Hirst and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Given this backdrop of bad faith, Californians should rejoice over the Every Student Succeeds Act. As with No Child Left Behind, its flaws may become evident over the years. But at least it provides a small but important defense of the idea that schools should be devoted to students’ interests - not those of adult employees.

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Dec. 19

Merced Sun-Star on ways to curb global warming:

One of the reasons society has so many rules and regulations is because it’s so difficult for most of us to do the right thing on our own. Take driving, for example.

Most of us know that cars and trucks are responsible for 40 percent of our state’s air pollution. Most of us can see that we live in a bowl, that traps emissions in our air. Most will even admit that creating all that exhaust contributes to global warming, which is not-so-slowly destroying our planet (even Exxon admits it). And any parent of an asthmatic child knows that airborne pollutants can put their son or daughter into the hospital, gasping for breath.

Still, we love our gas-guzzling pickups and carbon-belching SUVs.

Thanks to those freedom-fettering regulations, gas is now cleaner and auto manufacturers make cars that are more fuel efficient and less polluting. Apparently, we’re going to need more such rules in this battle.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to put 1.5 million more zero-emission cars on the road within the decade. Californians own 24 million cars and drive 330 billion miles per year, emitting 290 billion pounds of pollutants. Today, fewer than 1 percent of Californians drive zero-emission vehicles; only 5 percent drive hybrids. Even if we reach the governor’s goals, we’ll still have a long way to go. Here’s how we get there.

First, the Public Utilities Commission needs to quit dragging its feet on rules for creating more plug-in infrastructure. Utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are prepared to install charging systems at airports, apartment complexes and work places across the state. Convenient recharging would make owning an electric car more attractive while ramping up new income streams for the utilities.

But the PUC worries the utilities, which enjoy monopoly status, will overcharge ratepayers for the build-out or crowd out private competitors such as ChargePoint. Wednesday, the PUC released one proposed decision for one phase of one pilot project. We’re losing our patience. Surveys show the lack of charging stations is a big reason drivers cling to their smogbombs.

Next, overhaul the state’s clean-car incentives program. Though state rebates appear ample - up to $2,500 for new ZEVs on top of a federal rebate of $7,500 (and even more for low- and moderate-income buyers) - they’re half what they once were. With cars costing $30,000 to $100,000, people in the Valley cant afford them. Lawmakers should consider regional incentives, so that more money goes for getting cleaner cars on the roads where the air is the dirtiest - the Central Valley.

With gas at $2.25 a gallon, people will burn it just for convenience. But the convenience of drive-thrus has an awful cost.

It made more sense 20 years ago when cars emitted more pollution on ignition than they did while idling for 2 minutes. Now, all cars are cleaner when they fire up, so it’s better to turn them off than idle for 2 or 3 while waiting for a cup of coffee. The same is true at traffic lights; simply put, round-abouts save gas.

Finally, with SUVs and pickup trucks making up 56 percent of all U.S. vehicle sales, it’s pointless to tell people they shouldn’t drive them. It sounds like whining, because it is. Instead, make those drivers take responsibility for their choices. Remember those hidden costs - asthma, bronchitis, acid rain, smog, global warming? If your Tahoe or Navigator contributes more to those problems than does your neighbor’s Volt, you should have to pay more for to help solve them.

The fairest way to defray those hidden costs is with a carbon fee at the pump, i.e., higher gas taxes.

If we’re serious, we’ll consider all of these solutions. They’ll make it easier to do the right thing.

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Dec. 19

Contra Costa Times on computer science requirements for the UC system:

Members of the faculty committee that sets course requirements for admission to the University of California are resisting pressure to give computer science a place in the range of classes that count. They say it should not be allowed to displace any math or science course, which are the basics for succeeding at UC.

Let’s think more broadly about the challenge here.

We have a societal and economic problem. Fewer and fewer students, especially girls, are choosing tech careers, and the percentage of black and Latino students remains minuscule. Yet these constitute many of the good jobs available today and for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, if we don’t interest kids in preparing for those jobs, the tech industry will have to continue importing workers or, worse for our communities, expanding operations overseas where qualified workers are available.

Given what’s at stake, UC should find a way to encourage quality K-12 computer education and see if that results in more kids successfully aiming for tech careers, especially more girls and minorities. If it doesn’t, the faculty can reverse course after a few years and go back to basics.

A coalition of high school teachers, tech industry leaders and some elected state officials want to make computer science or coding classes count toward requirements for UC. They cite large numbers of students who express interest but, in the competitive environment that is UC admissions, can’t afford to divert time from others that really count.

At a forum convened by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation last year, Code.Org co-founder Hadi Partovi said, “By the year 2020 there will be 1 million unfilled programming jobs because there will be only 400,000 computer science graduates by that year. The number of computer science majors is shrinking, and a shrinking percentage of those are women.

“The number of girls, Hispanics or African-Americans taking AP Computer Science is a tiny fraction of the small number of students taking the course overall.”

Partovi added that the number of courses called “computer” is inflated because some are just courses in how to use applications. It’s a fair point. UC should set standards for acceptable courses.

Kids today grow up with computers and learn to operate them as naturally as they learn to walk. But there’s a difference between being able to use a machine and understanding the science that makes it work, let alone being capable of programming it. That can be an aha moment that changes a life.

Basic math and science education are essential to success in life. So are languages and art. Including rigorous computer studies as an option to satisfy UC entrance requirements doesn’t have to undermine a well-rounded education. Find a way to do it.

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Dec. 21

Orange County Register on milk prices:

California dairy farmers have a big beef with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which sets the minimum prices for milk in the state. Unhappy with a divergence in state and federal milk price controls in recent years, the dairy farmers have launched a campaign to be regulated under the federal government’s rules. Their proposal would establish an all-milk price almost 7 percent higher than the current price, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it would increase annual producer revenue by $700 million a year.

This does not bode well for milk processors, who buy the milk from the farmers to make cheese, butter, yogurt and other products. Nor would consumers appreciate paying higher prices for their dairy goods.

“Market conditions we can respond to,” Rachel Kaldor, executive director of the Dairy Institute of California, a trade group that represents milk processors, told us. “But if it’s just the government setting the price . then that’s a problem for us in California.”

Moreover, she said, since prices are arbitrarily set, and not responsive to market forces, regulators “have to hit the bull’s-eye to ensure all milk produced is sold.”

Herein lies the problem with price controls, whether imposed by the state or the federal government: No central planner can ever hope to amass or quantify all the information and changing preferences of millions of consumers to determine the “correct price” for a good; this can only be determined through the decentralized forces of the market, as revealed and altered by consumers’ purchasing decisions. It is what Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich A. Hayek explained as the “knowledge problem.”

Exchanging a set of heavy-handed state regulations for even stricter federal regulations is no solution, particularly if the purpose is simply to benefit narrow special interests - in this case, the large dairy farmers - at the expense of consumers. Not only should the federal government not agree to gouge consumers even more than they already are, these Depression-era “marketing order” regulations should be eliminated, and dairy farmers forced to be subject to the same market pressures that producers of other goods and services must navigate.

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Dec. 22

San Francisco Chronicle on changes to water conservation mandates:

With a serious El Niño winter looming, state regulators are preparing small but significant tweaks to California’s strict water conservation mandates.

The shift is in response to responses from local water districts - some of which have been reasonable and some of which have not been so reasonable. It’s up to the state’s regulators to find a balance between tough mandates that encourage people to save as much water as possible, and flexibility in response to the realities that communities are facing. For the most part, the small changes proposed are a good balance.

Earlier this year, with California reeling from its driest four-year span on record, Gov. Jerry Brown set a tough new 25 percent reduction rate for urban communities. Brown recently extended his executive order to give regulators authority to enforce the conservation targets through October 2016, provided that California still faces a drought.

That California will still be facing a drought in January is a near-certainty - national weather experts have estimated that even strong El Niño weather patterns are unlikely to offer comprehensive relief to the northern areas that are crucial for storing the state’s water supply.

So it’s critical for the state to maintain tough restriction mandates.

But it’s also critical for the state to listen, especially to constituencies that are doing their best.

Two of the proposed changes, announced Monday and expected to be approved in February, reflect these constituents.

There’s a proposal to adjust conservation standards for urban districts that have improved their water efficiency (like San Diego, which just invested $1 billion in a desalination plant) and incorporating a “climate adjustment” to reduce conservation requirements for water suppliers in the hottest parts of the state.

The climate adjustment may be the hardest portion of the changes for regulators to explain - at least to coastal communities, who may see it as unfair.

However, it’s worth pointing out that the hottest part of the state is also home to many of the poorest Californians, with some of the state’s poorest water infrastructure. Many of these communities have struggled mightily to keep up with the water cutbacks. There’s little evidence that these residents will squander any extra water they receive - especially with the threat of fines still looming over them.

Equally important are provisions that the board did not recommend adjusting.

Specifically, the board doesn’t recommend giving communities credit for the use of recycled water or groundwater.

Recycled water isn’t counted in a district’s production statistics, so regulators are right to prevent double-dipping in terms of credits.

As for groundwater, the proposed regulations point out, quite rightly, that the state doesn’t yet have groundwater management that’s “adequately transparent, intelligible, implementable, or reasonable for an Emergency Regulation of limited duration.”

We’d add - though Californians have historically treated groundwater as though it were an infinite resource; it’s not. The last terrible years of drought have taught us how finite it really is, so it’s important for regulators to treat it accordingly.

The board is also recommending against changing conservation to a “year round residential per capita” water use, both because it discourages the current emphasis on reducing high outdoor water use and it would give breaks to properties that are only occupied part time.

This is a change that would exacerbate the inequalities that the conservation mandates have highlighted throughout the state, and it’s a good one for regulators to avoid.

Overall, the State Water Board’s proposal represents a modest change, not a huge loophole, for the necessary restrictions to get California through this historic drought.


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