For more than a decade, “accountability” has been the education buzzword in Florida.
Schools are assigned A-to-F letter grades, teachers are evaluated using a complicated mathematical formula and third-graders can be held back if they don’t pass a standardized reading test.
The rules are different at for-profit colleges. The Herald found that, despite fraud lawsuits and government investigations around the country, Florida’s Legislature continues to encourage the growth of the industry, which says it provides opportunities to disadvantaged students. Lawmakers have increased funding sources and reduced quality standards and oversight. The attorney general in Florida, meanwhile, has been less aggressive than those in some other states in pursuing schools when they skirt laws involving the hundreds of millions they receive in state and federal money.
In Homestead, a school owner gained enormous influence with the local government, working through the mayor, whose wife was secretly hired by the college owner as a $5,000-a-month consultant. Miami-Dade prosecutors looked into the connection but decided it was no crime.
“In other areas of our education system, we promote accountability,” said State Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat. “Why wouldn’t we do the same here?”
Rodríguez filed a bill this session that would rescind state grant funding and suspend the licenses of for-profit colleges where loan defaults exceed 40 percent — or 30 percent in back-to-back years. A legislative staff analysis predicted a “very small number” of schools would be at risk.
The bill struggled to gain traction, particularly in the Florida House, where it didn’t get a single hearing.
“The groups with the largest checkbooks tend to set the agenda,” Rodríguez said. “I don’t know if that’s what’s going on here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.”
A Herald examination of campaign records since 2008 found that for-profit colleges have contributed more than $1.2 million to state lawmakers and political parties. The Legislature, in turn, passed 15 laws benefiting the industry.