- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

April 23

The Press-Enterprise on an overabundance of charter schools in California:

A new labor-backed study charges that California charter schools are opening schools where they aren’t needed, but parents - not special interests or governmental bodies - should be the final judges.

The report from In the Public Interest criticizes charters for opening in areas where there is existing classroom space in traditional public schools, criticizes them for using public funds for their facilities - as they are entitled to do under Proposition 39, passed by voters in 2000 - and alleges that they are misusing funds.

“Paying for more schools than are needed wastes taxpayer dollars,” the report states. “Furthermore, an oversupply of schools serves to undermine the viability of any individual school.”

The study claims that the growth of charter schools has led to an “overproduction of schools” by focusing on available desk space, but this exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic economic concepts of supply and demand. Demand is not determined by how many things you can produce; it is determined by how many things you produce that people are actually willing to consume.

And, increasingly, traditional public schools are becoming better at producing empty desk space than well-educated graduates, as more and more parents have come to the conclusion that these schools are not working, and thus have enrolled their children in charter schools to offer them better opportunities.

It is no wonder there has been such an explosion in the number of charter schools in California. There are now more than 1,250 charter schools in the state - four times the number that existed when Prop. 39 was passed just a little more than 16 years ago - and there are over 600,000 students enrolled in those charter schools, according to the California Charter Schools Association. Both totals are the largest of any state in the nation.

“The recent report by In the Public Interest, an organization closely tied to the California Teachers Association and labor groups, is the latest attempt by CTA to not only stop charters from growing, but to shut down even the most effective schools,” Richard Garcia, CCSA director of elections communications, said in a statement.

And therein lies the real conflict. Unionized, traditional public schools are upset that, now that they are forced to compete, they are oftentimes losing out to charter schools - most, but not all, of which are not unionized. They simply cannot compete with the charters when their union rules maintain ineffective teachers, tie the hands of management, stifle innovation and prevent them from offering the kinds of programs and instruction that students and their parents want.

To truly examine the “market” for K-12 education, one need only examine the tacit demand as revealed by parent and student behavior. The mere facts that so many are willing to go outside the traditional public school system, oftentimes at significantly greater inconvenience, and that so many charter school investors, managers and educators are willing to risk so much time and money to create and operate new schools, are evidence that there is not an oversupply of education, but rather an undersupply of quality education.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the saying goes, and parents and students are voting with their feet. Traditional public schools, and their teachers union champions, can either continue their heavy-handed resistance and try to use their government influence to simply shut down their competition, to the detriment of children’s education, particularly for those with the fewest opportunities, or they can adjust and try to outcompete their rivals. It is, regrettably, obvious which course they have decided to take so far.

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April 25

The East Bay Times on access to police body camera recordings:

A simple bill requiring transparency in public access to police body-camera recordings is sailing through the state Legislature and it should continue to do so. While it is not perfect, this bill is a reasonable step toward better transparency in policing.

Assembly Bill 748, by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, has won unanimous approval from the Public Safety and Judiciary committees, sending it on to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Ting’s bill requires any law enforcement agency in the state whose officers use body-worn cameras to develop a policy that sets forth the procedures for, and any limitations on, public access to recordings taken by the body-cams, and to post that policy conspicuously on the agency’s website.

AB748 requires the policy to “allow public access to the fullest extent required by the California Public Records Act,” the state laws that allow the governed to keep watch on those who govern them. The deadline for police agencies to accomplish this, assuming the bill becomes law, is July 1, 2018.

There are already state laws about police body-cams, requiring agencies to consider established best practices in developing policies and procedures for downloading and storing the recordings. Those policies must establish storage periods for evidentiary and nonevidentiary recording data, and must prohibit the unauthorized use, duplication or distribution of the data.

But all legislative attempts to establish statewide rules on public access to body-cam recordings failed in 2015 and 2016. The difference with Ting’s bill is that it does not impose a specific statewide standard. Instead, it simply requires each agency to develop its own policy for public access to recordings, and to make the public aware of its policy.

That is far from ideal, but it is at least a step in the right direction. Having good, transparent policies in place is good for everyone, police and the public alike. Uncertainty about police shooting policies and whether recordings could or should be released greatly exacerbated tensions in places like Milwaukee and Chicago.

Setting down the rules ahead of time and making the public aware of them should help to reduce tensions between police and the public.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association, writing in support of AB748, notes that the very purpose of body-cams is to increase accountability and transparency of police. It makes little sense from a transparency standpoint for an agency to require use of body cameras and then drastically limit public access to what those cameras show.

Establishing solid access procedures and rules and then making them public before there’s an incident would take transparency among police departments to the next level.

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April 20

The San Francisco Chronicle on an anti-secrecy law aimed at keeping consumers safe:

What you don’t know really can kill you. As unconscionable as it seems, sometimes lawsuits are settled on the condition that an enduring danger to public health and safety is kept concealed from you.

Eleven other states expressly prohibit such secrecy deals in legal settlements.

Why are Californians left vulnerable? It’s not because state lawmakers haven’t been pushed by consumer groups to address the issue - or been confronted with real-life examples of where protective orders or secrecy agreements kept consumers from knowing about defective products that led to serious injuries and deaths.

The barrier proved to be our state Legislature’s unwillingness in 2001 and 2005 to stand up to powerful interests that were determined to seal evidence from public view. Each time, too many cowered when it counted on the final Assembly vote.

The issue is back in the form of AB889 by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Santa Cruz, now armed with a thick file of additional cases in which lives could have been saved if only consumers had been given earlier warning of serious hazards.

Richard Zitrin, a legal ethics expert at the UC Hastings College of the Law, has cataloged details of dangers that were at one time shielded by court-approved secrecy agreements. He scoffed at the corporate lobbyists’ claim that the anti-secrecy law would force their clients to reveal trade secrets.

“How is a product defect a trade secret?” Stone said. “A trade secret is something that offers a competitive advantage.”

Or as Zitrin put it, “Nobody’s going to copy something that’s going to kill people.”

Stone noted that evidence not related to a hazardous defect - and details such as the dollar amount of a settlement - could still be sealed by the courts.

Among the egregious examples of known dangers hidden by secrecy agreements:

-Belt separation in defective Cooper Tires resulted in driver loss of control, contributing to at least 362 deaths. Researchers have uncovered more than 500 settlements involving defective Cooper Tires, many with secrecy pacts, according to the legislative analysis.

-Faulty trigger mechanisms in Remington rifles sometimes caused the weapon to fire without pulling the trigger. The death of 9-year-old by an inadvertent rifle firing led Montana to pass the Gus Barber Anti-Secrecy Act in 2005. The boy’s father had pushed for the legislation after discovering that Remington had been settling lawsuits with nondisclosure agreements.

-General Motors’ faulty ignition switches caused vehicles to suddenly accelerate, the power steering and brakes to shut down and the air bags to deactivate. At least 20 cases were settled before the defect was exposed to the public in 2014. Zitrin’s research found that the defect was a factor in at least 174 deaths.

Other examples of dangers concealed by secrecy deals include fertilizers that caused plant explosions, ill-designed table saws that resulted in arm amputations, pharmaceuticals with known but undisclosed side effects, air bags that spewed shrapnel when activated, window shade cords that strangle and car seat-backs that collapse in a rear-end collision.

A coalition of business groups opposed to AB889 contend that it “unfairly leverages business to either settle lawsuits that allege a danger to the public health and safety or disclose confidential information during civil litigation.”

Nonsense, replied Zitrin. It has not been the case in the 11 states with similar laws. Besides, he noted, such disclosure of a known safety hazard could serve to accelerate the legal proceedings brought by other victims.

Stone said the issue comes down to what is more harmful to our society: nondisclosure of a defect that can cause serious bodily injury or death or a law that makes it “a little more difficult” to settle a lawsuit involving that product?

But most important of all, Stone’s bill would compel a company with a faulty product to to identify and fix it rather than brush off a settled lawsuit as an isolated incident. Remington, for example knew about the trigger-without-warning issue as early as 1947 and received thousands of complaints in the ensuing decades, according to documents released in 2015. A 1994 lawsuit resulted in a $17 million verdict against the company - but a protective order kept damning details out of public view.

Our legislators know these kinds of deals are wrong. They have passed bills to seriously restrict secrecy agreements and protective orders in cases involving elder abuse, child abuse and sexual abuse.

Other serious threats to public health and safety deserve similar protection.

Stone’s AB889 is scheduled for a hearing in the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee on May 2. This time, there must be no parliamentary games. Legislators must take a stand for consumer rights, public safety - and just plain human decency - and send AB899 to Gov. Jerry Brown to sign into law.

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April 25

The Pasadena Star News on audits of CSU, UC system finances:

We thought last week’s state audit of California State University system finances was quite negative - until we saw Tuesday’s audit of the University of California system.

Now that’s a damning audit.

The highlight - er, lowlight - of State Auditor Elaine Howle’s report on CSU was that over the past eight years the system has hired middle managers at a rate at least twice that of any other employee group, including faculty. And that compensation for managers has grown at three times the rate of faculty pay.

That’s bad enough - the people who actually teach our young people at CSU are more important than those who direct them and shuffle papers, in our view.

But the findings of Howle’s UC audit are fairly explosive.

“The Office of the President accumulated more than $175 million in restricted and discretionary reserves that it failed to disclose to the regents and created undisclosed budgets to spend those reserve funds,” the auditor says in the fact sheet that accompanies the UC audit.

It goes on to say that the Office of the President “received significantly more funds than it needed in each of the four years” reviewed, yet asked for increases in future funding based on bloated budget amounts rather than actual costs.

UC President Janet Napolitano responded that charges of hidden funds were false.

Howle called the Office of the President’s budget practices “misleading” - which we take to be a nicer way of saying “sneaky” and “deceptive.”

Another charge, from Howle’s letter to the governor and legislative leaders: “We found it particularly troublesome that the Office of the President intentionally interfered in our efforts to assess the types and quality of services it provides to campuses” by reviewing campuses’ responses to surveys from the auditor and getting negative responses removed or improved.

Among the other findings in the UC audit:

-The Office of the President paid its executives and administrative staff “significantly” more than their counterparts in public employment. For example, 10 UC execs made $3.7 million in combined salaries in 2015-16, about 19 percent more than their “highest-paid state employee counterparts.”

-Administrative staff salaries are way out of line: An information manager can make $258,000 with UC, compared to $150,000 with other state agencies. That’s 72 percent more.

The auditor’s key recommendations are that “the Legislature should directly appropriate funding for the Office of the President’s operations” to ensure accountability, and that the UC regents should closely monitor the president’s office’s spending plans and its progress toward implementing the auditor’s recommended corrective action plan.

Two regents quickly responded, complaining that having the Legislature approve the UC president’s budget would “threaten the University’s standing as a constitutionally autonomous entity … .”

We’re not ready to say legislators should get involved on that level. After all, having the California Legislature tell anyone else how to spend money effectively is reminiscent of the pot’s maligning of the kettle.

But certainly the Legislature should insist that UC leaders - who voted in January to hike student tuition for 2017-18 - clean up their own fiscal house as they seek bigger slices of the state budget.

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April 22

The Ventura County Star on oil platforms along California’s coast:

It’s fitting that California’s coast received some landmark environmental news in the week leading up to Saturday’s Earth Day: the decommissioning of the last oil platform in state waters off Santa Barbara. We believe the planned permanent shutdown of Platform Holly is a symbolic and real step forward - toward cleaner waters and beaches along our treasured coast.

We must temper the good news, however, by noting the caveat of “state waters,” which extend three miles offshore. Beyond that, in federal waters, more than a dozen oil platforms still sit off Santa Barbara. And the Trump administration has repeatedly said it wants to expand offshore drilling.

In fact, on the same day state and Venoco LLC officials were announcing the Holly shutdown, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was touring Santa Cruz Island and speaking at the Reagan Center in Santa Barbara. The former Montana state senator and congressman reportedly did not talk about offshore oil on Monday, but last month he said, “Opening more federal lands and waters to oil and gas drilling is a pillar of President Trump’s plan to make the United States energy-independent.”

And so, on this Earth Day weekend, we can ponder what may be one of numerous environmental battles between our state and federal governments in the coming years. We are firmly on the side of our state in opposing new offshore oil drilling or fracking, and for now we’ll celebrate the closing of Holly.

Actually, the platform, built in 1966 and acquired by Venoco from ExxonMobil in 1997, had not been producing oil since the Plains All American Pipeline spilled 123,000 gallons of crude off Refugio State Beach in May 2015, fouling beaches in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The onshore pipeline transported the oil produced by Holly and still is shut down, with no estimate of when it might reopen. As a result, Denver-based Venoco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, expects to sell all its assets, and relinquished its rights to the South Ellwood oil field leases in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Plugging the 32 wells in the field, removing Holly and decommissioning Venoco’s Goleta Beach Pier will take three years, the State Lands Commission said. But when it’s done, it will be the first platform removed from California’s coast in more than 20 years, The Mercury News in San Jose reported.

The praise came quickly and abundantly last week, especially from those who remember the 1969 spill from a Union Oil Co. platform that polluted 30 miles of beaches in the area and helped spawn this nation’s environmental movement.

“This is significant,” Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, told The Mercury News. “It will eliminate the risk of oil spills in this very sensitive area and on popular public beaches.”

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the commission’s chairman, called it a “landmark in the evolution of California’s energy portfolio.” State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said it “marks the end of an era of offshore oil production in this location, and we will never again go back.”

The California Coastal Sanctuary Act of 1994, signed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, banned new offshore oil and gas leases in state waters. And the Obama administration postponed any new leases in federal waters off California until at least 2022.

The Trump team, however, could try to scrap the Obama plan and allow not only drilling but also fracking offshore. It wouldn’t be easy, with hurdles including public comment periods, environmental reviews and probable lawsuits from environmental and fishing groups. But with Republican majorities in the House and Senate and the energy industry’s increased influence in the White House, we wouldn’t bet against the president trying.

And that, we believe, would be a huge step backward as we move toward a future of cleaner energy, a cleaner ocean and a cleaner environment. California’s oil production already is half of what it was 30 years ago as offshore and other fields have been depleted and public opposition to drilling has increased. The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California conducted a poll in July that found more than 60 percent of California voters opposed any increase in offshore oil drilling.

Forgive the cliché and pun, but clearly the tide of history is on the side of a platform-free California coast someday. If we can get there sooner rather than later, we just might save a few beaches along the way.

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