More than 75 vocational schools under investigation

by Jennifer Golan, The Bay Citizen

State regulators intend to mete out swifter penalties and tighten oversight of dozens of private vocational schools that have been operating without state approval, in some cases for months.

The California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education last month directed its enforcement staff to investigate 77 schools with expired approvals. Bureau officials also decided in mid-May that all other schools that fail to renew their approvals on time will be immediately referred to the agency’s enforcement division. Officials also recently began notifying schools before their approvals are set to expire.

The changes follow an investigation by The Bay Citizen that revealed lapses in oversight by the postsecondary education bureau, including that it had allowed as many as 137 schools, representing 10 percent of the state’s private vocational schools, to operate for months without state approval. The investigation also found that the agency had failed to monitor the quality of educational programs, aggressively investigate complaints, and track and punish unaccredited schools and diploma mills.

In interviews, students complained that they were paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend schools operating with expired approvals. State approval is essentially a license to operate. Some students worried they had no consumer protections or any assurance that the schools were offering quality programs.

There are roughly 400,000 students enrolled in vocational schools in California. They provide a springboard for everyone from aspiring dental assistants and vocational nurses to security guards and truck drivers, for fees as high as $40,000.

While more than 130 schools had expired approvals, the bureau said in April it had no plans to track and punish the schools. ‘It is not a general enforcement practice to track that down,’ Joanne Wenzel, the postsecondary bureau’s deputy chief, said at the time.

But that practice appears to have shifted under the leadership of Laura Metune, who took over as bureau director in mid-April.

‘There was no decision to ‘step up enforcement/oversight,’ " Metune said in a written statement. "I worked closely with my staff to develop best practices regarding institutions with expired approvals, since this was the first batch of expired approvals the bureau has had to deal with. We expect our best practices will continue to evolve, not only in our enforcement activities but in our licensing and compliance activities as well.’

After The Bay Citizen’s series, the agency’s enforcement chief resigned, and the state shut down a school that made false claims about its accreditation status. In mid-May, the state Assembly passed legislation that would require private vocational schools to disclose their job placement rates and any problems with their educational programs that could limit students’ employment prospects. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, head of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Education Committee on June 20.

‘We want to make sure that all of the schools that need to be approved are approved,’ said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Services, which oversees the postsecondary bureau. ‘For those schools that have not responded and have not indicated that they are going to renew, we will do cease and desist letters and fine them for unlicensed activity.’

Heimerich would not identify the 77 schools under scrutiny, citing confidentiality rules under the California Public Records Act regarding ongoing investigations.

Schools caught operating without state approval face fines of $50,000 for each main campus they run. Since October 2010 the state has fined two schools for operating without approvals. The fines are on hold while the schools appeal.

Consumer advocates welcomed the stricter enforcement from the bureau, which was established more than two years ago to improve oversight of private vocational schools. The postsecondary education bureau replaced a regulatory agency that was shut down in 2007 after state lawmakers deemed it ineffective. Vocational schools operated with virtually no state oversight until the current bureau was launched in January 2010.

‘We are looking for the bureau to protect students and hold schools accountable,’ said Elisabeth Voigt, senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a civil rights organization based in San Francisco. ‘It’s important for all schools to come into compliance with the basic consumer protection requirements of the bureau. The critical role the bureau plays is to make sure students have critical information and to follow up when students have been harmed.’