CVIndependent

Fri12042020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Happy Friday, all. Let’s get straight to the news:

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died. NPR’s Nina Totenberg sums it up: “Architect of the legal fight for women’s rights in the 1970s, Ginsburg subsequently served 27 years on the nation’s highest court, becoming its most prominent member. Her death will inevitably set in motion what promises to be a nasty and tumultuous political battle over who will succeed her, and it thrusts the Supreme Court vacancy into the spotlight of the presidential campaign.” Thank you for working so hard for so long, Justice Ginsburg.

• Fires remain the big news in the west. The Los Angeles Times offers news on the nearby Snow fire, which was sparked by a burning car and has forced evacuations; and shares the awful news that a firefighter has died battling the El Dorado firethe one that was sparked by that gender-reveal party down the road near Yucaipa.

• On latest episode of How the CDC Turns: Now the official government guidelines again say that if you’ve been in contact with someone who has the coronavirus, you should get tested, even if you don’t have symptoms. CNN explains the craziness.

The president today announced he’s banning TikTok and WeChat from mobile-app stores as of Sunday. As a result, China is ticked off—as is the American Civil Liberties Union

• Yet more Census shenanigans: The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that Census workers there were told their work was over—even though the entire city had not yet been surveyed. Key quote: “Several (workers) reported being offered counting jobs in Reno, Fort Bragg (Mendocino County) or the far reaches of the East Bay instead. But San Francisco, their supervisors told them, was fully counted even though statistics … showed that was far from the truth.” 

Also from the Chronicle comes this: “The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, managed by the University of California but federally funded, has suspended its employees’ diversity training program by order of the Trump administration, which recently called such programs ‘divisive, anti-American propaganda,’ The Chronicle has learned.” Sigh. 

The Public Policy Institute just released a new poll regarding Californians’ feelings on all sorts of things. Turns out Californians like Gavin Newsom and Joe Biden, but aren’t wild about the idea of bringing back affirmative action.

NBC News takes a look at the problems some people, who want to vote by mail, are having in other states. Key quote: “Mississippi and four other states—Indiana, Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee—continue to limit vote-by-mail access and don't consider the pandemic to be a valid reason for absentee voting. Each state faces numerous legal challenges to the stymied access. With less than two months until Election Day, many voters remain confused about whether and how they can vote by mail. The uncertainty has the potential to affect voter access and, therefore, the outcomes of the elections themselves.”

• While we’ve been making good progress at stemming the figurative tide of COVID-19 around these parts, the number of new cases has doubled in much of Europe in recent weeks. And they’re soaring in Israel as well.

• Two professors, writing for The Conversation, make the case that “humanity can leverage the internet to collaborate and share innovations toward solving pressing societal problems” like COVID-19. How would this work? Well, for starters, they think we should make taxpayer-funded health efforts, like vaccines, open-source.

• A smidgen of good news: There’s yet more evidence that efforts around the world to slow the spread of the coronavirus are also tamping down the flu. MedPage Today has the update.

Can wearing eyeglasses decrease your chances of getting COVID-19? Data out of China indicates it’s a possibility.

• From the Independent: Andrew Smith worked at Lord Fletcher’s, the legendary Rancho Mirage joint, famous for its prime rib, that was one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite places to hang out. The owner announced last month he was closing the restaurant and putting it up for sale; here’s Andrew’s remembrance. Key quote: “The portrait of Frank Sinatra, framed and mounted behind his favorite table, always attracted the most attention. Michael Fletcher has hundreds of stories to tell, but the most notable is about the night that Sinatra and Alan Shepard jumped behind the bar to perform a duet of ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’”

• According to The Hill: “Aria DiMezzo, a self-described ‘transsexual Satanist anarchist,’ won the Republican primary for sheriff in Cheshire County, N.H., last week.” Wait, what?

• I was again a guest on the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast this week, where I discussed the reopening prospects for Riverside County, among other things. Check it out!

• The year 2020 has brought the world a lot of things, most of them terrible. However, it will also bring the world its first Lifetime Christmas movie with a gay storyline. I just don’t know what to think anymore.

• And finally, Gene Weingarten, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, writes about what happened after a neighbor asked him for a tomato. Trust me when I say you’ll want to read this—and read it until the end.

That’s enough for today. I am going to get together with some friends, socially distanced in a friend’s backyard, to toast the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Digest will be back on Monday; have a great weekend despite all the chaos, everyone.

Published in Daily Digest

Jaelyn Deas and her four best friends shared everything, including late-night study sessions in the library at San Jose State University, and a never-ending preoccupation with how they’d pay for their tuition there.

The one thing they didn’t do together? Graduate.

While she was juggling a major in international business, a minor in Japanese and a job to help keep up with her expenses, Deas fell behind, and her friends put on their caps and gowns and walked across the stage in May without her.

It was her friends who were defying the odds. Fewer than 20 percent of her classmates who entered San Jose State in 2014 finished in four years—less than half the national average.

That didn’t make Deas feel any better. She considered quitting or transferring to a community college. Then she was summoned to the financial aid office, where she learned that the university, part of the California State University System, was giving her a grant of up to $1,500 to help her get across the finish line.

“I walked out of the office crying. I had no idea something like this existed, and it took a burden off my shoulders,” said Deas, who is on track now to earn her bachelor’s degree before the year is out.

It’s one example of the many ways that California is taking on seemingly intractable problems that are plaguing higher education nationwide.

These include the longer-than-expected amount of time it takes students to graduate; high dropout rates; financial aid that doesn’t cover living expenses; courses that cost more than students will earn from what they learn; institutions that prey on veterans and others; financial-aid applications so complex that many students never bother with them; admissions policies that favor relatives of donors and alumni; credits that won’t transfer; pricey textbooks; and “remedial” education requirements that force students to retake subjects they should have learned in high school, often frustrating them enough to quit.

Not all of the initiatives have succeeded, nor is California the only state that’s trying them, often in the absence of reforms at the federal level. That program at San Jose State to help students make it to graduation by offering them small bursts of financial aid, for instance, was pioneered at Georgia State University.

But California is bucking a national trend: Most other states are continuing to reduce, not increase, their higher education budgets. With a higher education budget of $18.5 billion in 2019-2020, it has invested heavily in helping community college students transfer into four-year programs; spent more than $50 million on food banks and other programs to combat student hunger and homelessness; opened an online community college to serve people who are already working; and boosted state grants for students with children, among other initiatives.

Meanwhile, all but four states are spending less on higher education, per student, than they did in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Those spending more? Hawaii, North Dakota, Wyoming—and California.

Some of what is happening here is inspiring similar reforms around the country. After California took on the NCAA in September by requiring that college athletes be allowed to sign paid endorsement deals, for example, legislators in New York, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina started mulling comparable legislation. That prompted a decision by the NCAA to let college athletes benefit from the use of their names and likenesses, though the association is still working out the details.

Fueling the reforms and the funding behind them are a projected shortage of workers with the necessary degrees to fill the jobs of the future; a public backlash in response to budget cuts made during the recession; and a concern that the state had been abandoning its long tradition of high-quality, low-cost education.

Californians remember “when younger generations could truly expect to live a better life than their parents and grandparents. And that dream has been fading,” said David Chiu, a member of the State Assembly from San Francisco who is active in education issues.

“That’s why so many of us have been focused on how do we bring this back,” Chiu said. “Because we had that history, because we knew what a well-functioning higher education system could do, we aspire to that again.”


California’s Challenge

Over the course of a century, California built the country’s top-ranked public research university and its largest and most affordable community college system. Today, there are 10 University of California campuses, 23 Cal State (CSU) campuses, and 115 community colleges.

A California resident in 1960 could earn a bachelor’s degree at the world-class University of California, or UC, for just $60 per semester in “incidental fees”—about $500 in today’s currency. That same year, the state adopted a master plan for higher education: The UC would serve the top eighth of graduating high school seniors, while the top third would be eligible to attend a CSU campus. The community colleges would be open to all.

The goal, writes historian John Aubrey Douglass, was “broad access combined with the development of high quality, mission differentiated, and affordable higher education institutions.”

But in the coming decades, politicians of both parties responded to economic downturns by cutting higher education funding, causing tuition to rise. The trend peaked during the recession that began in 2008, when UC hiked undergraduate tuition by nearly a third in a single year.

The price of undergraduate tuition and fees, when adjusted for inflation, has increased sixfold in the last 40 years at the University of California, and is 15 times higher at California State campuses, according to the independent California Budget and Policy Center.

Only one student in 10 graduates in four years at Cal State Los Angeles; that number’s fewer than one in five at nine of the system’s other campuses.

In a poll of likely voters by the Public Policy Institute of California, 53 percent said the higher education system was going in the wrong direction, and 56 percent that an education was growing less affordable.

Like many states, California is behind in its progress toward a goal of increasing the proportion of adults with a college or university credential, according to the Lumina Foundation, which tracks this; today, fewer than half of its adults have one, short of the target of 60 percent by 2030 set by the advocacy group the Campaign for College Opportunity. (Lumina is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which co-produced this story.)

“That number gets a lot of play across the street,” said Jake Jackson, a Sacramento-based research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, gesturing toward the state Capitol.

At the same time, California’s student population has changed in ways that foreshadow national trends, becoming more ethnically diverse, with growing numbers coming from low-income families in which they are the first to go to college. No racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority here; 39 percent of residents are Hispanic, while 38 percent are white; 14 percent are Asian; and 6 percent are black. More than a quarter are immigrants.

Those demographics have allowed for experimentation with ways to encourage college-going by people from a variety of backgrounds.

Doing this isn’t easy, even here. Cristina Mora remembers feeling lost and adrift after leaving her close-knit Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles to enroll at UC Berkeley in 1999, “like there had been a clerical error, and I’d been admitted by mistake.” She didn’t attend a professor’s office hours until her junior year, finally converting the Cs and Ds she’d been earning into A-pluses.

Today, Mora is an associate professor of sociology at Berkeley and a mentor to other first-generation college students. She says UC has made strides in attracting diverse applicants by increasing recruiting in previously ignored areas such as the Central Valley and towns along the Mexican border, and making it easier for community college students to transfer. Students of her generation returned to their communities, she said, bringing with them “a sense that the UC system provides an opportunity, and that these are places that would be welcoming.”

But black and Latino students today still are less likely than their peers to graduate from UC or CSU institutions in four years and are underrepresented on the state’s most selective campuses. Among UC students, they take on higher-than-average levels of debt.

“We have a long history of not catering to these populations,” Mora said.

If policymakers are going to close California’s graduation gap, they’ll have to figure out how to meet the needs of students like Mora once was, and Deas is today. And if California can do that, perhaps the rest of the country can, too.


Helping Students Graduate

Some of what is happening in California leverages the state’s vast power of the purse. For starters, the state is trying to increase the number of transfer students—especially from its community colleges—accepted by both public and private universities.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown threatened in 2017 both to withhold a $50 million allocation to the UC system unless it increased its share of transfer students, and to strip private colleges and universities of their eligibility for the $2 billion Cal Grant program unless they did a better job admitting transfers.

Brown wanted some public universities with low numbers of transfers to take one transfer student for every two freshmen, a goal they’ve largely met. In addition, the private, nonprofit member institutions of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities have agreed to collectively enroll 3,000 transfer students annually by next year.

The state invested $75 million last year to try to raise those low CSU graduation rates and plans to spend another $75 million this year. The rates have already slowly started to improve, with 27.7 percent of CSU students now finishing in four years, up from 19 percent in 2015. (The most recent available national average is 42 percent, the U.S. Department of Education says.)

Some of that extra money has gone toward adding sections of courses that were filling up too fast. Not getting into the classes he needs is a big fear for student James Soberano, a San Jose State freshman majoring in computer engineering who was pecking away at his laptop in the student center.

“I definitely want to be out of here in four years,” Soberano said. “If not, I’ll be taking summer classes to be sure I am.”

San Jose State has also added 30 new advisers in the last three years, a university spokeswoman said. Data analysis is being used to pinpoint bottlenecks, such as those overcrowded courses. The “Spartan Completion Grant” that Deas got is part of a program that began last year for seniors who are within two semesters of earning their degrees and meet other requirements. They can receive up to $1,500 per semester. The university says that 70 percent of recipients have graduated.

Another effective way of speeding students toward degrees is by eliminating noncredit remedial courses, which require them to repeat subjects such as algebra and English. More than four in 10 college students across the country end up in remedial—also called “developmental”—classes. That costs students $1.3 billion a year, according to the Center for American Progress, and many simply give up.

In California, 80 percent of community college students were being sent to remedial courses in English or math, and only 16 percent of them earned a certificate or associate degree within six years, according to the PPIC.

In response, in 2017, California’s community colleges began putting less-well-prepared students into credit-bearing introductory courses with extra tutoring. The CSU system, too, started doing this last year, and now also funnels students with low high school grades or standardized test scores into special preparation programs in the summer before their freshman years.

Though some faculty members have objected to the changes, early studies suggest they’ve led to big improvements: 63 percent of community college students who went directly into transfer-level English composition courses with tutoring successfully completed them, compared to 32 percent who went to remediation.


Costs Outside the Classroom

Bright murals decorate the walls of UC Berkeley’s Basic Needs Center, framing the entrance to a food pantry laden with organic mac and cheese, fresh produce and bread from a nearby bakery.

Students who have trouble affording food and rent come here to do their grocery shopping, sign up for public benefits or meet with counselors. A community kitchen is under construction, and volunteers use a bicycle with a custom trailer to pedal around nearby neighborhoods, collecting excess produce from residents’ gardens.

The center is the result of student activism spotlighting the nontuition costs of college in a state where the price of housing has reached staggering heights. The goal: to ease students’ stress about food and shelter so they can focus on their studies.

Researchers have documented widespread food and housing insecurity among students across the country, and the purchasing power of the federal Pell Grant, which can help cover living costs, is at a historic low. California students spend an average of $2,020 a month, or $18,180 per nine-month academic year, on food, housing, books, supplies and transportation, a survey released in September by the California Student Aid Commission, or CSAC, found.

California is well-equipped to address college affordability because, unlike in many other states, every low-income student who has completed high school within the previous year and meets academic requirements is entitled to a state scholarship, the Cal Grant, that helps pay his or her tuition.

While hundreds of thousands of students still miss out on the grants each year because they took time off before college, this tradition of comparatively generous tuition assistance has nevertheless freed policymakers to think about how to make the other aspects of college more affordable, said Lande Ajose, senior policy adviser on higher education to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“For six of the last seven years, tuition has remained flat at our colleges, and yet we find the cost of college increasing, and that is because the cost of living is increasing,” Ajose said.

The California Assembly passed a bill this year that would have made it easier for all students with financial need to access Cal Grants and tied the amount to their full cost of attendance. Though the Senate left the measure stranded in its Education Committee because of concerns about the price, its authors, the governor’s office and higher education advocates say that they are discussing how to move forward on another version in the next session.

Given California’s size and diversity, Ajose said she hopes the solution they come up with can serve as a model for the rest of the country.

“Just as California’s student population is becoming more diverse, that’s not the time to disinvest in higher education,” she said. “That’s the time to double down on investment in higher education, if we really care about equity.”

California has thrown a lot of other ideas at making college more affordable.

The California State system and some UC campuses have substituted cheaper digital books and open-source materials for textbooks, for example, which the CSAC found cost California students $1,080 a year.

The CSAC itself last year began to address the complex process of applying for financial aid, which research shows makes prospective students less likely to enroll in college in the first place, by creating a more user-friendly website and making it easier to compare the costs of different schools.

In a pilot program by the California Policy Lab, redesigning and simplifying letters sent to 130,000 high school students about Cal Grants made them 9 percent more likely to register for the online Cal Grant system by June of their senior years. “That’s a lot of new students able to attend college and improve their career options,” said the lab’s executive director, Evan White.

Many campuses are opening food pantries like the one at UC Berkeley, holding outreach fairs to sign up students for the state’s version of the federal food stamp program, or starting emergency housing programs—all backed by that more than $50 million in this year’s state budget to help deal with student hunger and homelessness.

Those funds came after students packed legislative hearings over the past two years to testify about rising rents and having to work 30 hours a week on top of their study time. That kind of activism also stands out from what is happening in most other states, where students lack strong statewide organizations or are less involved in state politics, said Max Lubin, an Education Department official in the Obama administration who started the advocacy group Rise while a graduate student at Berkeley. The group provides paid fellowships for students to spend a semester lobbying politicians on college costs.

“California higher education leaders have learned in the last couple of years that they can get a lot more done by working with students than in conflict with them,” Lubin said.

The state is trying to help older students, too, a challenge also facing the rest of the country. More than 35 million Americans over the age of 25 have some college credits but never got degrees, the Census Bureau says; 29 percent of undergraduate and 76 percent of graduate students are 25 or older, the U.S. Department of Education reports. But many juggle families and jobs, and aren’t eligible for state financial aid.

This year, Gov. Newsom successfully pushed to provide students at public universities and colleges who are parents of dependent children with as much as $6,000 a year for books, child care and other nontuition expenses on top of tuition aid. An estimated 29,000 parents qualify, the governor’s office says. In September, the state debuted an online community college designed especially for people 25 to 34 who are already working but don’t have a college degree or certificate.

Legislators also filed several bills to tighten regulation of for-profit colleges and universities, which often serve older, low-income students. One would have required these schools to prove that the educations for which they were charging graduates resulted in jobs that paid enough to justify the cost—similar to the Obama-era “gainful employment” rule that has been blocked at the federal level by the Trump administration—or lose their access to state financial aid.

That proposal, which was introduced by Chiu, was beaten back by industry lobbying, but, in a compromise, the state will begin to collect information on graduates’ income and debt, by institution, so that consumers can make better-informed choices about which programs will and will not pay off.

“We’ll have a pretty good sense of how many schools are failing our students and exactly who they are. We can then decide what the consequences of that should be,” Chiu said.

Several other measures to crack down on for-profit schools stalled, thanks in part to the for-profit colleges’ aggressive lobbying campaign. But advocates say they were only the first salvos in an ongoing battle.

“In large part, it’s because of the federal retreat on oversight of for-profit colleges that California lawmakers are seeing a need to elevate the state’s attention” to it, said Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

With the entire structure of for-profit college oversight in California up for renewal next year, said Shireman, he expects that some of these proposals will be raised again. That will continue to put the state in direct opposition to the Trump administration on higher education regulation, as it is on many other issues.

Few clashes are as pitched as the fight over who gets to decide whether veterans in California can use their GI Bill benefits to attend for-profit Ashford University, which the state’s attorney general has accused in an ongoing lawsuit of misleading students, including veterans.

That tug of war began when the state stepped in to block veterans who enrolled at Ashford from receiving taxpayer-funded support. In response, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in September stripped authority from the state veterans education agency to determine veterans’ benefits eligibility there.


Experimentation at Scale

California is not the only state trying to improve the success rates of its students, or to make policy in the absence of federal action; amid the partisan bickering in Washington, D.C., the Higher Education Act, which covers all federal regulations over higher education and which Congress typically reauthorizes every four to six years, hasn’t been updated since 2008.

Louisiana last year started to require high school seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Texas will also require this, beginning in 2021-22. Currently, 30 percent of undergraduates or aspiring undergraduates never fill out this form, forgoing the chance to receive financial aid; a third of them would have qualified for a federal Pell Grant, research supported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found.

Colorado is dropping remedial courses beginning in 2022, and universities and colleges there have already started getting rid of them.

Many states have resorted to enforcement actions, lawsuits and new laws to crack down on for-profit colleges and universities and loan-servicing companies they say cheat or mislead students.

At the federal level, a House bill—introduced by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California—would create a pilot program to help community colleges pay for free meals for students who can’t afford to buy food.

But few other states are trying as many reforms at once as California, or can do so at such scale; its financial aid program is the nation’s biggest, and its community colleges alone have a collective enrollment of 2.1 million.

California still has to figure out how to cope with the challenges that come with that scale. Each year, tens of thousands of qualified applicants are turned away from UC and CSU campuses due to lack of space.

But California’s size will also continue to make it a laboratory for innovation, Kevin Cook, associate director of the PPIC Higher Education Center, said.

“There’s a lot of interest from large funders,” he said. “Because of the size of the state, if you can make something work here, it will probably work anywhere else.”

This story about California higher education was produced by CalMatters, a nonprofit news venture covering California policy and politics, and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. This story also appeared in CalMatters, The Hechinger Report and NBC News.

Published in Features

In a steady but painstakingly slow pattern that has come to define California’s push for equity in education, statewide test scores inched up incrementally this year—though about half of the state’s students are behind in reading, and only 4 in 10 students are proficient in math.

The results of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress tests, administered to some 3.1 million students in grades 3-8 and grade 11, were recently released by the state Department of Education. Now in their fifth year, the scores told more or less the same story of incremental growth they have been telling since the state began using the test to measure student performance under newer, more-rigorous Common Core-based standards. 

On one hand, education officials say, the scores are moving in the right direction: Statewide marks either rose or stayed flat in every reading and math portion of the exam, except for eighth-grade math. On the other, the scores are moving at what some experts and civil-rights advocates have previously described as a glacially slow pace.

The state’s high-school juniors were among the most-improved in reading and math this year, but that rise followed a significant drop the prior year that negated gains made in lower grades. A majority of students statewide, for the first time, were proficient in reading, but more than 49 percent of students still aren’t at grade level.

Though economically disadvantaged students seem to have improved at a faster rate than the rest of their peers in some areas, their passing rates in reading and math remain further behind. For example, 39 percent of the state’s economically disadvantaged students passed the reading exam, and 27.48 percent passed math, while the rest of their peers passed reading (69.48 percent proficiency) and math (58.88 percent passing) at twice the rate.

Achievement gaps highlighted by the exam also remained stark. The state’s black students (33 percent proficiency in reading and 20.55 percent in math) and Latino students (40.56 percent passing in reading and 28 percent in math) far under-performed their white and Asian peers. More than 65 percent of California’s white students passed the reading portion, and 54.23 percent passed math, while nearly 77 percent of Asian students were proficient in language arts, and 74.37 percent passed math.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond spoke with urgency about the situation. 

“Disparities between students of color and their white and Asian peers continue from year to year and demonstrate the importance of our priority initiative of closing the achievement gap,” Thurmond said in a statement. “Education equity should mean equity for all students, and right now, we are not there.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, concurred. “While California is trending in the right direction, the overall pace of progress is sluggish and uneven,” she wrote an op-ed column published Wednesday by EdSource.

Achievement gaps have narrowed between Latino and white students, as well as between poor and more affluent pupils, she wrote, but progress has stalled in older grades; the achievement gap has not narrowed for black students; and math scores remain “at a disappointingly low level.”

Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an advocacy group focused on closing student achievement gaps, said “the results we see are not about students’ inability to learn or succeed; (they’re) about adult decisions that have not supported students over time.”

“Overall, we’re crawling for it as a state in terms of closing the achievement gaps we see. But we’re crawling when we really need to be sprinting,” Arrillaga said.

Results from the test fall into four buckets: “standard not met,” “standard nearly met,” “standard met” and “standard exceeded.” Scores that fall under the latter two achievement levels are considered passing marks.

Over the five years in which California students have taken the exam, statewide reading scores have improved nearly 7 percentage points, from 44 percent proficiency in 2015 to 50.87 percent in 2019. Statewide math scores have gone up at a near-identical rate, from 33 percent proficiency in 2015 to 39.73 percent in 2019.

Julien Lafortune, an education research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said it was “encouraging, in general” that the state’s scores have gradually risen over the last five years, given that the state’s public-school system is the largest in the nation.

“It’s not probably the pace that we would want necessarily,” Lafortune said of the scores, “but it’s easy to forget this is a big system, and there are a lot of moving parts. Big systems tend to move slowly, for better or worse.” 

Lafortune also noted that although math scores have improved slightly, the proportion of students that tested in the math exam’s lowest performance level of “standard not met” increases dramatically in older grades: While 26.75 percent of California third-graders tested in the lowest bucket in math, that percentage rises to 45.48 percent in 11th grade.

Though gaps persist among California’s poor students, they are improving at a faster rate than the rest of their peers. A “cohort” of economically disadvantaged students who took this year’s exams as eighth-graders improved their proficiency rates by 3.36 percentage points in reading, while their peers’ reading scores remained virtually flat over this three-year span. While math proficiency only rose up 0.83 percentage points among this disadvantaged cohort, the passing rate for those not classified as economically disadvantaged went down 1.65 points.

How California’s economically disadvantaged students improve or stagnate on the exam is significant because a new studyby Stanford education researcher Sean Reardon has found that, despite a longstanding focus on school segregation, poverty and the income levels of student’s household are most correlated with gaps in student learning.

California has the nation’s largest public school system, with 6.2 million students, and about 40 percent of the state budget, by law, goes to public schools. That said, the state’s per-pupil investment has lagged nationally, and fell significantly during the Great Recession. In recent years, state spending per pupil has slowly crept up the rankings, but California still is only hovering around average despite a rise from $9,067 to $11,993 per student over the past five years.

The state budget signed in June by Gov. Gavin Newsom included a $2.7 billion increase in the state’s investment compared to last year, including more than $400 million for early education and child-care programs, and $646 million for students with disabilities. 

California’s shift toward more-rigorous standards—and more-rigorous testing—has been in progress for nearly a decade. But a PPIC survey co-authored by Lafortune and released in September found that about 30 percent of the state’s schools, many of them rural, still hadn’t fully adopted Common Core. Even where the new standards are in place, PPIC found, gains have been modest so far.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Diego San Luis Ortega was a toddler when his parents brought him to California from Veracruz, Mexico. Now 22 and a “Dreamer” who is protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, he is a political activist and a community college student in Visalia who hopes to become a history teacher.

He is also gung-ho about standing up to be counted in the 2020 census, despite the concerns of many family and friends that participation could put their ability to remain in the United States in jeopardy.

“At the end of the day,” Ortega said, “if it’s to better my community, I’ll do it. If I get hurt, I get hurt.”

The U.S. Constitution mandates an “actual enumeration” of each state’s population every 10 years. The U.S. Census Bureau, part of the U.S. Commerce Department, conducts the decennial count, which aims to determine how many people reside in the United States and where they live.

The answers determine, among other things, how many congressional seats each state will have for the coming decade, and where hundreds of billions of federal dollars will be spent on medical and nutritional programs, the national school-lunch program, housing vouchers, Head Start, highway construction and myriad other programs. The information also is used to redraw congressional and state legislative district boundaries.

A significant element of the 2020 census remains unresolved, awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision: Will the Trump administration be allowed to add a question about citizenship?

The administration has argued that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, added the question to collect detailed data to enforce the Voting Rights Act. District court judges concluded that enforcement of the voting law was a pretext. Many legal analysts have concluded that the question was politically motivated, designed to limit the political power of immigrant communities—areas that typically prefer to vote for Democrats.

At issue is how the citizenship question came to be added and whether Ross ignored administrative review processes. U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued in part that the courts should not meddle in the Commerce Department’s decisions regarding the census. President Trump broke with the Justice Department’s official line last week, writing on Twitter that “the American people deserve to know who is in this country.”

But grassroots activists and social science researchers contend that if the question is added, immigrants and their families—whether documented or unauthorized—would be less likely to respond or might respond inaccurately because of fears that the information would be used for immigration enforcement.

California and other states with high immigrant populations stand to lose big. Migrants, particularly Latinos and Asian Americans, have grown to fear the federal government after years of hearing anti-immigrant rhetoric from President Trump and like-minded Republicans.

“We think Californians will be less likely to fully answer the form if this question is included,” said Sarah Bohn, director of research and a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco. “If there’s a bad count overall, and immigrant communities are undercounted, it would be entirely possible for us to lose a seat in Congress.”

In lawsuits brought by dozens of states, cities and groups, three federal judges at U.S. district courts in California, New York and Maryland have issued rulings blocking the administration’s plan to add the question, which asks: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” The last time such a question appeared on the form was 1950. Since then, citizenship data have been gathered through surveys of a small sample of households.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in U.S. Department of Commerce vs. New York, a case challenging the citizenship question as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Based on the justices’ questions, it appears that the court’s conservative majority is prepared to back the administration’s plan, even though the Census Bureau’s own statisticians project that as many as 6.5 million people could go uncounted if the question is allowed.

The high court is expected to decide by late June, just as census forms are to be printed.

Esperanza Guevara, 29, a graduate of Stanford University, has experienced the census challenges firsthand. She recently became the census campaign manager for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA, in Los Angeles, part of a coalition that launched a get-out-the-count campaign on Monday.

Guevara’s parents immigrated to California more than 30 years ago and eventually became naturalized citizens, but they have never participated in a census. “It took me getting this job and having a conversation with my mom for her to learn about this for the first time,” Guevara said.

California has already earmarked $100.3 million for census outreach, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed that an additional $54 million be allocated. On a per-person basis, California is investing more than any other state to get out the count, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento.

Many factors conspire to make California the nation’s hardest-to-count state. They include the high immigrant population, many residents’ limited English proficiency, the high number of renters and multiple-family households with children 5 and younger, homeless people, couch surfers and those with limited access to technology. For the first time, this census is expected to be conducted, for the most part, electronically.

The high stakes and California’s notoriously hard-to-count citizenry have propelled dozens of grassroots, municipal and statewide organizations to brainstorm strategies.

The California Complete Count Committee is an advisory panel of 26 members appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators. Similar organizations exist in counties, cities and regions including the Central Valley and the Inland Empire.

Using funds from the state or philanthropic organizations, groups are plotting multiple outreach efforts. In rural areas of California, the Communities for a New California Education Fund—a civil-rights organization with offices in Sacramento, Fresno, Merced and here in the Coachella Valley—plans to send teams door to door and to run phone banks. Language will be an issue for volunteers and staff members. The San Joaquin Valley, where many of the efforts will be concentrated, has migrants who speak Spanish, Hmong, Punjabi and indigenous languages of Central America.

All of these programs are intended to spread the word that “by filling out the form, you are representing your community,” said Diana Crofts-Pelayo, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento-based California Complete Count-Census 2020, which is coordinating the census outreach strategy. “Waiting for 10 years from now isn’t an option.”

The state complete count organization is partnering with county offices of education, tribal governments and regional community-based organizations to encourage people to participate.

Other groups will pass out census information to families who visit social-service agencies, hold town halls and sponsor mobile centers where people will be able to complete the census online.

Cindy Quezada, director of research and special projects with the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, has held meetings in community centers, day care centers and people’s apartments. “If you speak to people and help them understand (the importance of participating), they get it,” she said. “The inclusion of the citizenship question will be a big deterrent.”

In the Los Angeles region, the Census Bureau plans to gather data from homeless-service providers and provide explicit instructions in mailed materials about including young children. Digital advertising will be enlisted to get the attention of renters.

Lisa Hershey serves on the California Complete Count Committee. “We have so many boots on the ground right now … (because) we want to identify where people might live,” said Hershey, executive director of Housing California, a Sacramento nonprofit group that seeks to find housing for all Californians. In some areas, she said, properties might house several families, living in garages, tents or trailers—knowledge that must be gained from on-site visits.

Edward Kissam, a longtime researcher on immigrant issues and a trustee of the WKF Charitable Giving Fund, which supports immigrant integration initiatives, said the addition of the citizenship question would put pressure on the Census Bureau to hire enumerators who could interact “culturally and linguistically” with reluctant households.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science and public policy at UC Riverside who is directing the complete count committee for San Bernardino and Riverside counties, expressed dismay that the high court appeared to be leaning toward approving the citizenship query.

“The Supreme Court appears to be weighing in on the constitutionality of the policy, not the wisdom,” said Ramakrishnan, who is also founding director of the university’s Center for Social Innovation.

If the high court allows the question, the next move would be up to Congress, he added.

“The House could play hardball with the administration and say: ‘We will not give another dime for the 2020 census until you take that question away,’” he said.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Astronomical prices are forcing a rising share of California families to postpone buying a house. As a result, the state’s record-low homeownership rate has been a boon to one growing segment of California’s housing market: single-family home rentals.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of owner-occupied homes in California shrunk by nearly 64,000 units, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Meanwhile, the number of renter-occupied homes increased dramatically: California now has 450,000 more homes used as rentals than it did a decade ago. Compare that to the 1990s, when the number of rented homes grew by less than 120,000, while the state added 700,000 homes owned by the people who live in them.

The rising tide of single-family rentals has renewed attention on where the rent payments that nearly 2 million Californians make each month are going. Lawmakers and first-time homeowner advocates have been scrutinizing a relatively new form of landlord: private investment firms that snapped up thousands of homes during the foreclosure crisis and now rent them out. With nearly one in four California homes now purchased in all-cash, these well-financed institutional investors have also been blamed as unfair competition against families bidding on starter homes.

So how much are institutional investors impacting California’s housing prices? The data says not so much now.

Institutional investors accounted for less than 2 percent of California single-family home sales last year.

Typically, the term “institutional investor” refers to private investment firms that buy dozens of residential properties with the explicit aim of generating a steady income stream through rentals. They often invest the money of wealthy individuals and public pension funds, like those established for California state workers and teachers.

The best example is Blackstone, a publicly traded Wall Street firm that barreled into the country’s single-family home market in the depths of the Great Recession in the late 2000s. Through its residential investment-focused subsidiary, Invitation Homes, Blackstone is now the largest owner of single-family homes nationwide. In California, the company owns about 13,000 homes.

But firms such as Blackstone have stopped buying wide swaths of California homes. According to the real estate data firm ATTOM Data Solutions, which defines institutional investors as entities that buy 10 or more homes in a given year, institutional investors accounted for less than 2 percent of the state’s single-family home and condo sales in 2017.

That’s a pretty steep drop from as recently as 2012, when institutional investors accounted for about 7 percent of sales.

Why the decline? California no longer has a glut of cheap houses that can be easily gobbled up in foreclosure auctions. A sustained economic recovery and a lack of new-housing construction has sent housing prices skyrocketing. It’s now too expensive for institutional investors to buy lots of California homes. Blackstone’s Invitation Homes bought only 82 California houses last year.

“The low inventory and homeownership rates are good (for investors) if they own the property—it means more renters,” says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at the real estate data firm ATTOM. “But it’s bad if they’re trying to acquire more properties.”

Those all-cash offers beating out would-be homebuyers aren’t coming from large investment firms anymore. Wealthy “mom-and-pop” landlords—families that can afford to buy another house and rent it out as an investment—now dominate the single-family rental market. Among all single-family rentals nationally, about 80 percent are owned by individuals that rent out just one or two homes, according to ATTOM.

But aren’t institutional investors keeping houses off the market—and doesn’t that drive up prices?

Institutional investors aren’t keeping enough homes off the market statewide to blame them entirely for California’s astronomical housing prices. But in certain markets—especially in areas hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, such as the Central Valley and in the Inland Empire—it’s impossible to pretend they have no influence.

Among cities with at least 100,000 residents, Sacramento has seen the most properties sold to institutional investors since 2007, according to ATTOM’s data—about 6 percent of all homes sold in the city during that time span. Just down Interstate 10, San Bernardino and neighboring Rialto have seen the largest share of their housing stock bought by institutional investors, at roughly 10 percent.

Firms have largely stayed away from Bay Area cities, where the foreclosure crisis was less acute, and where housing prices are among the most expensive in the country.

“We do not believe our activity impacts prices at any level,” a spokeswoman for Blackstone subsidiary Invitation Homes wrote in response to questions.

Institutional investors have targeted the typical starter home in these cities—three-bedroom, two-bath houses at a price point that a few years ago could have been afforded by younger families. So in some cases, would-be first-time homebuyers are now renting in places they may have bought just a few years ago.

Still, the stock owned by investment firms in these areas is much lower than in places such as Atlanta or Phoenix, where private firms have been responsible for nearly one in four home purchases. And young families are more likely to be renting single-family homes from smaller landlords.

Proposed laws to help first-time homebuyers have stalled

Reports of institutional investors making all-cash offers on California homes caught the attention of state Sen. Ian Calderon, a Democrat from Whittier, when he was attempting to move out of his apartment and purchase his first house last year. While the 32-year-old lawmaker acknowledges that institutional investors don’t own a large chunk of California’s housing stock, he says he’s concerned their influence is yet another hurdle for young homebuyers to overcome.

“I just want to be able to have more information about these firms, and ultimately I want to advantage first-time homebuyers,” said Calderon. “I want to make sure that people aren’t getting screwed.”

Multiple attempts by Calderon to impose more transparency on institutional-investor activity while blunting their ability to make all-cash offers have not gone far in the Legislature. Two years ago, a bill that would have forced homeowners to wait 90 days before selling to large institutional investors failed to clear both chambers with that provision intact.

Last year, a bill that would have required investors who own more than 100 properties in California to register with the state and provide detailed information on their activities again failed to reach the governor’s desk. Caldeorn says there’s a good chance that bill will be resuscitated this year.

The California Apartment Association, which represents landlords across the state for both multifamily and single-family units, has opposed much of Calderon’s legislation, arguing that much of the information it seeks is available in public stock exchange filings. That’s mostly true, but that only applies to publicly traded firms, and the data is not in the most accessible format.

Landlords also say Calderon’s bill doesn’t address the root cause of the problem.

“The bottom line here is about supply,” said Debra Carlton, lobbyist for the California Apartment Association. “There’s just not enough housing to go around, so you end up in these unfortunate situations where people can’t buy and can’t afford a place to rent.”

A previous story investigated another player with a greater effect on California’s housing market—foreign buyers. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Over the last decade in the Coachella Valley (and Riverside County overall), there has been a seismic political shift that is not related to the proximity of the San Andreas Fault.

In 2004, as the presidential election drew near, the Republican Party in Riverside County held a voter-registration advantage of 12.5 percentage points over the Democratic Party.

Four years later, that Republican advantage had dwindled to slightly more than 5 percentage points. And in 2012, as the race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney neared its climax, the Democratic Party had narrowed the gap to just 4.5 percentage points.

According to data released on May 20 by the California Secretary of State, that differential is now just 4.1 percentage points.

It’s no surprise that many political insiders in Riverside County attribute the Democrats’ surprising wins at the polls last November—Obama actually beat Romney by almost 11,000 votes in the county, and Dr. Raul Ruiz edged out incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack to get elected to Congress—to the party’s effective voter-enlistment drive over the last decade.

“When we opened our headquarters five years ago (in Cathedral City), we realized that one of the most important activities we could pursue was voter registration,” explained Elle Kurpiewski, the manager of the aforementioned headquarters and a former president of the Democrats of the Desert. “Our facility plays host to 11 different Democratic clubs and organizations in the region; we sponsor a booth at the weekly Thursday night Palm Springs Village Fest; and in 2008, we had 27 semi-permanent voter-registration sites established.”

Other factors have impacted the registered-voter landscape, too. One was the California online voter registration legislation that took effect in 2012 and is credited with enabling some 800,000 new voters statewide to join the electoral rolls prior to the 2012 general election. This new registration method proved particularly effective in attracting eligible voters among the young and minority groups, favoring Democrats statewide by a 2-to-1 margin over Republicans. (There are no specific numbers for Riverside County available yet.)

“Our only concern was whether online registration would actually work: Would voters be able to navigate the system successfully to get registered?” Kurpiewski said. “What we want is that people take advantage of their constitutional right to vote. If it works and helps stop registration fraud, then we’re in favor of it.”

Another major factor is the rapid growth of the Latino population statewide. According to the California Department of Finance, by early 2014, Latinos will outnumber white people by early 2014. Along with the Latino segment’s rapid growth comes these political realities: While only 44 percent of eligible Latino voters in the state had registered, more than 60 percent of them identified themselves as Democrats; meanwhile, only about 15 percent said they were Republicans, according to the Public Policy Institute of California in an analysis released earlier this year.

Therein lies both an opportunity and a challenge for the two major political parties.

“I always say that the Republican Party in Riverside County has three ongoing and equally important goals: voter registration, fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Randon Lane, chairman of the Republican Party of Riverside County. “I will speak to any organization, representing any constituency, about the Republican Party message and values. Right now, it’s important for us to get outside the box to attract both new voters to register as Republicans, and convert those who may not completely understand our message and are registered now with other major parties.”

Kurpiewski said local Democrats have made specific efforts to reach Latino communities in Coachella, Indio and Mecca. “But our focus is not just the Latino community; we care about everyone. In all ethnic communities, we enlist participants who are members of that community and have skills and expertise unique to their community. They know their neighbors and can identify the areas where our voter registration outreach will succeed. Our whole thing is working together with the communities that make up Coachella Valley, and that has made us successful in turning this valley blue.”

All eyes are now on the 2014 Riverside County Board of Supervisors race between challenger V. Manuel Perez, a Democrat, and Republican incumbent John Benoit. Just how much of the voter-registration focus in Riverside County will be on recruiting Latino citizens?

“There are a lot of shared voter concerns that we speak to as a party in our outreach efforts, whether at meetings, via social media or direct mail,” said Lane, “but particular voter segments have their specific issues that we want to address. The Republican Party wants to speak to the Latino community’s concerns, just as we need to address concerns in the black, Asian, white or any ethnic constituency where voters will consider supporting the Republican Party.”

Kurpiewski said local Democrats are in the process of starting a major voter-registration drive this month. “I’d rather not share details, because we don’t want to give opposing parties a preview of our strategy, but we are very confident that this effort will enable us to accomplish everything we can to help V. Manuel Perez to get elected, and also to keep U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz in office,” she said.

Published in Politics