Trade school accountability: No cops in the classroom

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by BYRON HARRIS

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WFAA

Posted on November 9, 2010 at 11:06 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 10:26 AM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

On a recent Thursday morning, the DART No. 29 bus was crammed with students headed toward ATI. They were lugging welding tools and helmets, but wired because of the money they were told they'd be making after graduation.

"They told us it was going to be about $90,000 a year," said one.

"They're going to start us at $26 an hour," said another would-be welder.

Talk to graduates of the same program though, and it's a completely different story.

"ATI is a fluke. ATI is a joke," said William Wise, who spent more than $20,000 on a HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) course. "ATI is lying to people."

"I got shammed," said Craig Russell. He graduated from ATI's air conditioning program at the Maple Avenue campus in June. Russell had one goal: A high-paying job.

Now he has $28,000 of debt and no job.

Taxpayers are spending a half-billion dollars a year on schools like ATI in Texas. Nearly 100,000 students attend the "career colleges," which are supposed to be regulated by the Texas Workforce Commission.

Despite decades of complaints from students, the schools operate nearly unfettered, under a protective coating of paperwork inaccessible to the public.

If wrongdoing is happening at for-profit schools, the career college cops are either not on duty — or may actually helping the perpetrators.

It isn't just students who deride the quality of for-profit schools. Steve Rothacker of One Hour Air Conditioning in Dallas often has ATI students ask him for work.

"I've told several students to go back and get their money back, because they didn't teach you anything," he said. "I would say that more than 50 percent of the candidates that come in are not technically qualified."

Cash cow

As many as 1,200 students attend ATI's Maple Avenue campus in Dallas. That represents at least $16 million in annual income for ATI's parent company in North Richland Hills.

But former students like Randy Mathis describe the facility as decrepit, its equipment obsolete, its teachers overworked, and drug and alcohol use rampant.

"All around me, students either (were) drunk, or high on some type of drug," Mathis said. "Teachers (were) constantly talking on their cell phones to their girlfriends. I could call in and just say I was present if I wanted to. It was a totally irresponsible school."

The Texas Workforce Commission is supposed to investigate and discipline irresponsible schools. To be sure, the agency has myriad responsibilities beyond trade schools, and a $5 billion budget, according to its spokeswoman.

But the record shows the TWC takes little action against the biggest, most profitable schools such as ATI.

The agency fights to keep the job placement records of for-profit graduates secret, and it won't talk about how it does its job.

From the TWC chairman Tom Pauken to executive director Larry Temple to career colleges director Catherine Bingle, News 8 was turned down seeking interviews about career colleges.

The agency is equally unwilling to release the paperwork it requires schools to submit on graduates, their job placements and where they work.

Dallas attorney Ty Gomez has been asking the TWC for the job placement records of career college graduates for more than two years under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA). He has 250 clients — former students who say they were promised high-paying jobs after graduation.

For many of them, the training they expect to get from ATI is the most important purchase of their lives.

"They're not selling toasters or washing machines," Gomez said. "They're selling dreams. They're selling education. They're selling hope for the future."

After waiting for months for the records from the state, Gomez received a box of documents that had been so heavily redacted that the contents were unintelligible.

The documents are the only way to reconcile schools' claims with reality.

ATI claims that thousands of its graduates get jobs every year, based on numbers the TWC sparingly releases. News 8 asked ATI what percentage of its graduates get jobs. The school did not respond to that question, except to say that it "exceeds the standards set by both accrediting and state regulatory bodies."

Your cash, their cow

Career colleges receive billions of dollars from the federal government based on their job placement rates.

If an ATI graduate, for instance, gets a job as an auto mechanic, ATI files a record with his name and where he's working. The record goes to the TWC.

Despite the millions of dollars involved, the TWC only verifies a tiny fraction of the records. A News 8 investigation found 278 fictitious jobs at another local career school, Everest College.

When News 8 asked the TWC for the job placement records of two large for-profit schools under the TPIA, the TWC refused to release the files, saying the graduates names are protected under federal law.

Using that logic, every school yearbook in history would be illegal.

TWC spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt says her agency's job "is to protect students and businesses in Texas."

There is nothing about protecting businesses in the TWC's mission statement.

But the TWC appears to be aggressive about protecting career schools. A document obtained by News 8 shows the TWC advises trade schools on how to thwart requests to the TWC for public records.

The agency, by accident or design, also makes it very difficult to file a complaint about a career college.

A student wishing to complain by typing in "career colleges" in a Google search is inundated with career college ads. Links connecting the TWC with career college regulation are sparse.

There is nothing on TWC's home page about career colleges, the agency's regulatory role, or explaining how to complain.

There is a listing for "student complaint record," but it is unclear to a user whether that is a record of complaints or a complaint form.

There is no listing on the TWC Web site of a career college's job placement records, even though the state collects and computes that information.

The state has received just 102 student complaints in the last year. Most students contacting News 8 about problems with their schools have no idea the TWC is the regulatory body. They complain to the Better Business Bureau.

News 8 has talked to several teachers and administrators who have complained to TWC about ATI and other schools.

"They were lying about attendance," said a former teacher about ATI. "They were lying about field trips. Instructors and students. and that there was fraud going on."

She never heard back from the TWC.

The Texas Workforce Commission also inspects career colleges once a year. Spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt said a school without air conditioning "would be unacceptable." Yet for years, parts of ATI's Maple Avenue campus have been without air conditioning.

The school teaches air conditioning repair.

This summer, huge portable air conditioners were brought in for months. "The classrooms were hot, overcrowded," said former student Craig Russel.

Replying to written questions, ATI said the school "underwent an air conditioning mechanical failure" in June. "ATI has invested in a new system at that facility since that time," the company added.

News 8 took still photos of the portable air conditioners two months after the August "failure."

"I think I recognize, and you recognize, the limitations in monitoring 450 schools," TWC's Hatchitt said.

In the last 15 years, the state has taken eight schools to court. All of them were small.

It has shut down 30 schools in the last decade — none of them as big as ATI, which has campuses in four Texas cities.

Twenty-four students in the entire state received tuition refunds in the last year.

The big schools, where thousands of students use millions of taxpayer dollars, appear to be immune to unilateral action by the Texas Workforce Commission.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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