Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cut Costs and Improve Life in California: Kill BTSA Now!

California’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program, or BTSA, is one of the least loved beginning teacher experiences in California. Like most liberal programs, BTSA’s name is doublespeak, the reality and the adjectival title are stark opposites. BTSA is the brain child of the University of California’s “educational research, but research does not show BTSA supports beginning teachers. Instead, quality assurance is based on an expensive series of annual conferences and peer reviews (see: "Program Evaluation and Accountability").

Anecdotal evidence (abundant on blogs) suggests just the opposite. BTSA is a jobs program for university faculty, administrators in training, and senior teachers. The evaluative process, the certification process, and the support processes are all redundant systems. Not many beginning teachers would pay for this “service” (see also BTSA is…). Killing BTSA saves money and improves the lives of countless new faculty members in K-12 classrooms. This though, is not happening. In the twilight zone of California government, the funding for the “support” is being used for books, but the BTSA requirements for credentialing remain. There is even talk of charging new teachers fees for the privilege of participating in this boondoggle.

BTSA, like much else in California’s educational system, is a top down program. PhD’s, and wannabe administrators who have been working most of their adult lives to escape the K-12 classroom, are in charge of future classroom teachers. The genuine support, as it does in most of life, happens for free. New teachers make friends who teach them the ropes or they don’t. Teachers share lesson plans or they don’t. The faculty generates department standards for excellence or they don’t. Hence, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, part of the massive K-12, 40 billion dollar education budget, is a place for far more than the proposed 10% across the board cuts, for it is a perfect place to cut government to improve lifestyle. This is a place for draconian cuts. This part of the budget can be reformed so that it all but pays for itself.

Most K-12 teachers would be shocked to know that the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing actually draws 32 to 33 million dollars a year in funding from K-12 education. That's because most teachers have direct experience with this agency as a blood-sucking fee machine. In fact, the licensing, testing, and credentialing fees do generate 21 million dollars a year while the actual hard work of fingerprinting, collating extensive teacher applications, and issuing certifications accurately costs only 9 million dollars. The 12 million surplus should be able to run the California Parks Service, but no, the Professional Services and the Professional Practices divisions cost tax payers 45 million dollars a year. Hence, the California Commission's yearly drain on the general fund.

The Professional Practices Services Division is the Commission's legal division. It's packed with lawyers. The income producing part of the Commission had about seventy employees, now they are down to sixty-five. That was the "across the board cut of ten percent." These sixty-five employees run their office at about $136,000 per person. The offices the lawyers run cost about $227,000 per person. Surely, Practices Division can run with four or five fewer attorneys. Fire the ones with the greatest seniority. They have the highest salaries and they delegate most of their work to underlings anyhow. Plainly, the State ought to cut more lawyers. This is the sort of fired worker that still saves California money after he is unemployed. Most low wage workers, like the folks that do the fingerprinting in Certifications, cost the state almost as much in unemployment insurance, renters' assistance, and food stamps as they do to employ. This, however, is not true of the lawyer. Firing a lawyer is actually a net gain for the state. The only mitigating circumstance is that an unemployed lawyer runs a serious risk of getting involved politics. The added expenses of imprisoning a lawyer who has turned to such white collar crime, or worse, not catching his criminal activities, may, in the end, outweigh the temporary fiscal budgetary gains of terminating his or her services. One last caveat: although both the Certifications Division and the Practices Division took a 10% personnel cut in 2008-2009, the projected cost of each office is up again in the 2009-2010 budget.

Really, the Division that sinks the Commission on Teacher Credentialing is Professional Services. The thirty-three employees of this division spend 40 million dollars of California Taxpayer monies annually. The offices in this division cost over 1 million dollars per employee. Of course, unlike the revenue producing Credentialing Division, or the bloated legal division, the one million dollars per employee is not related directly to individual salaries. These State workers distribute funding. But to whom? It is hard, of course, to tell what bureaucrats don't do for their money by the literature they produce explaining their work. Still, to this much the Division of Professional Service will confess (without the use of water boarding): "The Professional Services Division is responsible for the development of licensure standards for all credential areas for which the Commission issues credentials." If California is serious about cutting budgets, so serious that the legislature wants to raise the sales tax, issue debt, and fire health care workers, can it not simply leave the standards from last year in place for a while? California should lay off sixty percent of the people involved in assessment. Their salaries are significant. They have PhDs, are committed to fighting global warming, and are some of the few with minds that can truly understand that the Spotted Marsh Mouse is more important than most people. To any self-respecting state bureaucracy, these folks are worth any three lawyers and any fifteen or twenty teachers, especially teachers so lowly that they are still seeking certification. Still, as valuable as these members of society are, California should release them and their fantastic intellects to do more meaningful things.

Again, where the Professional Services Division describes its work as: "the development and implementation of licensing examinations as required in the Education Code" there is room for draconian cuts. Mix and match eighty-five percent more of the past test questions for a while and reduce the internal validity assessments. If teachers start teaching that the Darwin theory, especially regarding natural selection, is antiquated or that the Democrats have plagiarized large sections of the Communist Manifesto in the party platform (page 6 last paragraph), then, then California educators might have a problem. Until then, trust the previous tests. They are absurdly irrelevant enough. No one will teach a clear thought in a public school for at least another half a century. The testing development people worry too much. California could fire sixty percent in this department and sleep better as well.

Where the Professional Services Division spends the real money is in "the administration of state-funded programs including the Paraprofessional Teacher Training Program, the Alternative Certification/Intern Program, and in conjunction with the Department of Education, the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment Program. Related activities include data collection, reporting, and policy research."

These funds are distributed to local school districts for use in small, localized programs, the merits of which are very difficult to assess. Certainly, even if there were no budget crisis, the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment Program should be axed. Right now the program is clinging to funding. The 2009-2010 grants have been made Tier 3. That is, Local Educational Agencies (school districts) may redirect the BTSA grant funds to areas of need. But this is not enough. The legislated BTSA requirements for credentialing must be expunged. It is an outrage that the highly paid experts that have administered this debacle still have jobs in this cost sensitive environment.

The fact is that most beginning teachers would pay good money to avoid this service. Why not let them. Let them pay $200.00 to avoid the service entirely. See how many actually would. That’s research. Better yet, do an auction. With fifty new teachers in the room, auction off twenty BTSA free credentials. See how despised this program truly is. If there ever were any beneficial aspects of BTSA, they emerged from good teacher education programs already in existence, programs that are already part of teacher's credentialing process. If recruitment and retention of high quality teachers is still California's goal, these programs should all be dissolved and the funds used to reduce class size or increase teacher salaries.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

California Could Save 50 Million a Year by Reforming the DMV

California has chosen not to go forward with the biometric facial recognition software required by the federal REAL ID Act of 2005. That will save the California Department of Motor Vehicles 4.5 million dollars in this fiscal year and an estimated 25 million dollars every year thereafter. Though the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles is moving forward on biometrics, it offered a savings plan to offset REAL ID costs. California could apply these reforms and double the 25 million per year in savings. The D.C. reforms illustrate the opportunity citizens of California have to both save money and improve their life-styles.

The District of Columbia’s DMV is moving ahead with what many consider to be what President Reagan coined a "mark of the beast" national ID. Even though the national I.D. idea Reagan referred to was suggested in conjunction with a tattoo, the invasion of personal privacy biometric I.D.’s represent would be almost has horrible. However, the D.C. DMV's 09 Budget saved money for its change to facial recognition software and the computer indexed biometric photo’s of its citizens. The choices D.C. made in order to generate the savings are changes California’s D.M.V. could easily implement. If, like the District of Columbia, California changed the license expiration period from five years to eight years and allowed the registration fees to reflect a seven years value rather than five, California could “save” millions.

Although the logic of raising the fees while reducing the service is very typical of government, many taxpayers would happily agree to pay the same amount of money per year for an extra two years simply to avoid contact with the DMV of California. To reduce costs, the D.C. DMV extended inspections (which include smog tests in California) on new cars from a two year to a four year window. This extended window was supported by the E.P.A (p.3). California liberals, though, consider themselves special. They have managed to get special gasoline for California cars, and special emission protections especially designed for California, and of course, they have an especially strict smog testing requirement. California is also special by being a byword for impossible budget impasse. In other words, only the federal government is more impossibly in debt than California. We in California are proud to admit that we are more red than the Red Chinese. Sadly, we are more in the red than the Reds.

Nevertheless, even those that are very sensitive to carbon footprints must admit that a registration inspection on a new car is probably not necessary for at least three years. California has no such exemption for out of state vehicles.

The D.C. DMV hopes to generate enough savings from these measures to pay for its transition to facial recognition software, and although the cost of the facial recognition software per capita is difficult to compute, perhaps it is still safe to say that if California enacted the D.C. DMV reforms, a savings of 25 million per year would be a conservative estimate. Saving 25 million per year by not going with facial recognition software and then using the D.C. DMV proposals to reduce expenditure's another 25 million totals a tidy 50 million per year.

There is a larger principle behind such reforms of the California D.M.V. that that can save Californians the millions and millions more: California can no longer afford to needlessly pester its citizens. There are certain "services" provided by government that are odious to the majority of California's citizens. These should be ended now. Is a thumb print really necessary in applying for a commercial license? It wasn't before 1997. Is a ten-year history really needed for renewing a commercial driver's license? Aren't a social security number and a photograph enough to check for recent drunk driving and traffic violations? Aren't those violations already part of the applicant's records as "points" against his license? How much money can be saved by reducing these regulations? It is plain that a background check can be run without a thumb print. It is plain that the thumb print is "needed" to guard against crimes one might commit in the future.

The regulations that are a boondoggle to business in California cost money. Cut the regulations to save money and encourage economic growth.

After the most egregious bureaucratic infringements on personal liberties are expunged from California's Department of Motor Vehicles, consideration should be given to increasing fees for superior service. For instance, in any given year, budget shortfall or no, complaints of four hour Kafkaesque waits for the simplest services can be heard. Surely, as furloughs and full time positions are reduced, this will again be the case. Perhaps citizens would be willing to pay for an appointment on days that are "furloughed."

Why should a doctor who could bill at least $200.00 an hour spend nearly $1,000 of his time waiting in a line! Instead, he could be helping reduce another long line, the line of seriously needy patients waiting in an emergency room for treatment. Perhaps, the MD would be willing to part with a tenth of this wasted salary for an appointment on a furlough day? Let the tables be turned: three MD's per hour ought to make opening the DMV with it priceless services possible after all.

Departments of California's government that provide services, like the DMV, ought to be self-supporting. Greater transparency should also be required. For instance, how much does each driver's license driving test and knowledge test cost the taxpayer? Such information is vital to evaluating DMV services and practices. For instance, driving a car is so often connected to earning a living that the initial tests offered by the DMV are included in the small fees for a learning permit and license; however, how many times should citizens be allowed to fail these tests without additional fees? The D.C. DMV proposed savings by limiting the number of written tests (knowledge tests) to three per year. Perhaps it is better to have an increasing fee for each written and driving test an individual fails. Without a clear and transparent accounting for the costs of each DMV service such savings are difficult to evaluate.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Drill California! Drill! Seepage NOT Production Threatens Beaches

The black glob on the beach is not a dead whale. It is a hunk of tar washed ashore, not from an oil rig, but from a naturally occurring seepage of oil from a vast underwater reservoir California has refused to tap.

The best way to ban oil is to use it all up, so, if you are an environmentalist you should say, "The sooner we burn this stuff the better!" In 2008 the state's offshore seabed produced 37,400 barrels of oil per day, while federal offshore tracts produced 66,400 barrels of oil. We'll never rid ourselves of big oil! At that rate your children will be facing the same environmental evils. Offshore oil is a ticking time bomb waiting to spoil the pristine wildlife sanctuaries environmentalists have always treasured. End it now. Use the oil!

Even without the deleterious scheming of greedy, profit hungry capitalist oil companies, the oil just beneath the Santa Barbra Canal is seeping to the surface on a continual basis.

The oil on the beaches of Oxnard, Ventura, and Santa Barbara is not because of Exxon. Some estimate that in the 40 years since the Union Oil spill of 1969 nearly two million barrels of oil has seeped into California's coastal waters. Extracting the oil in Santa Barbra's coastal region has the potential to protect the environment. The seepage is well documented. Newer underwater mapping technologies have brought increasing evidence of the sustained environmental hazard the untapped offshore oil presents. The tar on the beaches will not go away until the oil beneath the surface has been removed. Perhaps, Oh Environmentalist, the removal of oil is part of man's Divine purpose on earth!

Energy wealth is the outer wall of the human sanctuary that is the modern world. This is a perfect time for California to turn to Sarah Palin's energy model to balance her budget.

California must return to its roots to continue its liberal lifestyle. Historically, California's dreams were not built on gold, nor on platinum blondes, but on gushers of crude. Once a net exporter of oil, California now imports more than 40%. California's oil production decreased dramatically in the 1950's. It was during this period that, via the Submerged Lands Act, the federal government granted California increased jurisdiction over its coastal waters. The tendency to regulate oil production and refining out of existence accelerated after the Union Oil spill in 1969. In 1995 the California Coastal Sanctuary Act basically shut down new offshore oil drilling in California controlled waters. Despite great progress in safe drilling, under Governor Gray Davis historic leases were not renewed, reducing offshore production even more. As a result, estimates of untapped oil under the direct control of the State of California now run as high as a billion barrels. Even more conservative 1995 estimates put offshore California Oil reserves as high as 750 million barrels.

As long as California remains a net importer of crude oil, a severance tax on oil is only a VAT tax on every Californian. The California refineries will mark up their prices by a multiple of the oil price increase. The sate and federal governments will then get more cents per gallon from every Californian. The goods transported by truck will increase by yet another multiple. The same forces that want oil out of California are in favor of a severance tax on oil. The severance tax will not bridge California's budget deficits; it will deepen California's insolvency.

However, should Governor Schwarzenegger allow the severance tax of 9.9 % on newly leased oil production, the equations change. The increase in oil supply will reduce the price refineries pay despite the increase in taxes. The increased production will allow oil companies to increase net profits despite their per unit declines in profit. If the Democrats will allow the Governor's proposed offshore drilling at Tranquillon Ridge, the Republicans and the Governor should allow the severance tax on new production.

Even without repealing the California Coastal Sanctuary Act, much of the 750 million to a billion barrels of oil sitting off the coast may become accessible. If Lt. Gov. John Garamendi is correct, "new leases off the Mendocino Coast, the Orange County coast, as well as the Santa Barbara coast" could result from the precedent set at Tranquillon Ridge.

The impact on California's fiscal issues would be immediate. The leases at Tranquillon are 1.4 billion over fourteen years. The additional restoration work, land grants, and funds for Santa Barbara County promised by PXP bring the total revenues for the state to over two billion dollars. (For those who accuse Californians of being too soft on "Big Oil", compare this leasing price with the federal government's Alaskan lease to Shell). This is what PXP is willing to pay for the rights to extract about 105 million barrels of oil. If the 1 billion in new oil is extracted at these rates, it would mean twenty billion dollars in leases alone. If one considers the 10% tax on a $70 price per barrel, the new drilling is worth another 7 billion. Depending on the jurisdictional battles over state and federal waters, there may be as much as another 10 billion barrels of oil for Californians off the coast. That's potentially another 70 billion in tax revenues and another two hundred billion in leasing revenue. None of these figures include the immense supplies of natural gas that will be leased, taxed, and used in California even as oil resources are discovered and drilled.

There seems to be some buzz in Sacramento about adding a severance tax on new oil production to balance the budget. That is of course, a measure meant to encourage Democratic environmentalists to allow new production. A horse trade is what is needed. The coffers of California need new oil lease dollars yesterday. There may be more production on tap than Tranquillon. (See: California’s Untapped Oil Beckons Occidental’s Irani), but the new leases money needs to be spelled out along with the issuing of the severance tax.

If Republicans need to trade the 9.9% tax on all production, it is still worth doing to get Tranquillon done. Why? Because California is $ 24 billion in debt (and climbing). But if much of the historic production comes from privately owned land, the 9.9% tax could reduce production in the short term. Privately owned oil rights are part of the property’s value. Hence, production on privately held lands may be subjected to a double taxation, a property tax and a production tax. Since the land rights don’t sunset, the motivation to produce less to avoid higher taxes may be significant. A Democrat-Republican compromise on taxes and drilling should include specific exclusions

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Conservatism & Libertarianism: Natural Rights Vs. Inalienable Rights

The notion of natural rights is not the same as that of the inalienable rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. These are akin, but the declaration inalienable rights bestowed on man by his Creator is a declaration of faith, and, hence, of a Supernatural design and purpose for man. For or founders, diverse in belief, this was the least common denominator of faith. No one rejected these tenets. However, in the spirit of synergy, let us see how far we Conservatives may walk with our natural law Libertarian brethren.

Of what does nature’s design for humanity inform us concerning the purpose of mankind? Perhaps the least common denominator would be to consider a Darwinian view of the natural world. Man is designed, in so far as he is designed by nature, to survive.

I’m not sure why some enlightenment thinkers assume abundance of any element when discussing the state of man in nature. It seems that the lack of natural resources has driven humanity to war many times. Likewise, the most peaceful societies, and, historically, the most advanced cultures are not hunter-gatherers, they are agriculturally based, husbandry based. The notion of real property and property rights comes from agrarian roots and is in conflict with the ideals of hunter-gatherers.

Is man’s mind more functional as it exists in nature, or should it be augmented by mind altering agents? In which case is the human consciousness performing according to natural design? As that answer is obvious, so also is Darwinian nature plain concerning human sexuality. The needs of children show what is proper in the responses of males and females. We aren’t bugs, cats, reptiles, or apes. The complexity of the human mind requires time and nurture. It is not that because nature teaches morality, that a government must enforce each and every natural precept. However, one cannot claim as a natural right what nature teaches is amoral. Logical consistency among Libertarians concerning their own stated beliefs should take them thus far, for even the next thought, a transcendant thought, is often much beloved as a Libertarian ideal.

Stealing is wrong according to natural law. Why? Not because of a Darwinian world view, but because, even though a dishonest thief claims justification --see the Communist Manifesto for an elaborate example--, those who are stolen from clearly understand the wrong that is committed. Hence, natural law is not based only on a supposed ideal view of humanity alone in a Darwinian natural world but also on the writ of human decency found in the heart of every man. This is a notion of natural law that transcends the Enlightenment thinkers. A Darwinist might argue that it proves evolution designed man's survival through community action, but we have left the carte blanche of the tabula rasa far behind.

Humanity is a strange creature that knows how to deceive and yet, at the same time, knows deception is morally abhorrent. What sort of creature is mankind? Some would argue that the love of freedom and the prevalence of religion among this paragon of animals indicates a purpose for man that is higher than that of even the greatest of apes. People thirst for things not of this world. Are our brethren with us still? For since this last step is on a road higher than natural law, one may deny one's own heart and write off the course of human history as an escapade in ignorance. Without malice, I'd ask my cousins to tarry just a while. For while we walk apace a moment, we will soon return. Here, though, follow elements of the corallaries that are the framework and basis of conservatism.

From this recognition of man's highest longings flows a strange notion: freedom of religion and freedom of speech are more sacred than the rights of property, for from these arise our faith choices wherein lies the truth of human destiny and the essence of human liberty.

Of the hunger for glory not of this world, history testifies, and of the common calling of the family of man his experience proclaims. A propertied man in conflict with a government over freedom of religion is a subject of a greater tyranny than he whose property rights are violated by an onerous welfare system. Although it is hard to respect those of us who too readily accept the tyranny of property, history has shown that religious persecution produces rebellion far more quickly. The long train of abuses that Jefferson cites, and the tendency of humanity to suffer the abuses he detailws, relate to the tyranny over property. Some abridgement of property is often suffered as a tolerable tyranny; however, there is no partial abridgement of religious liberty.

Laws not only govern; they instruct. That which is higher in man recognizes laws, regularities in the natural world that may be harnessed for the purpose of work. Likewise, humanity is instructed by the laws of national governance. We can approve or despise a national government according to the morality of its laws.

Returning to earthly things, those Libertarian brethren who tarried can perhaps walk with Conservatives again on these final thoughts:

If there are natural laws by way of which humanity is instructed in the precepts of right living in this world, then it is by nature humans are best taught. The fewer laws providing a safety net against humanity’s tendency to ignore natural laws, the greater freedom those who obey natural laws can practice. Laws of generosity, of service, of courage, loyalty and faith are as faithful as gravity. Those who oppose themselves, though, must be granted as much freedom to learn these lessons as is possible, for none of these can be commanded but by governments.

Finally, a genuinely free people will be the most moral, and a genuinely moral people will be the most free.