The shell game of getting information on Texas trade schools

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Updated Aug. 8, at 3:49pm.

The Texas Workforce Commission is charging the public for information on why it has levied fines on some for-profit schools, creating yet another obstacle for students trying to wisely allocate their scarce dollars for education.

Twice in the last four months, the agency has changed the data available on its website after stories by The Texas Monitor pointed out potential roadblocks for the public.

This time it appears that the TWC received a records request from the Texas Monitor, then posted the same information on its website, and then sent a bill demanding payment for the records retrieval.

If that sounds confusing, imagine being a student trying to wade through the TWC website for information to help in choosing which of the state’s 500-plus trade and career schools are legitimate, trustworthy institutions and which may not be.

In response to a Texas Monitor request for records showing the basis of fines the agency has levied on several for-profit schools since 2017, the TWC said it would cost $63 to gain access to those records.

But a search of TWC records shows the information is currently available on the TWC’s career school directory, where students, if aware, could access the information for free.

Previously, the agency posted the names of schools that were fined and the amount on an obscure portal on its website. But the reasons for the fines were not posted. That portal has since been removed, and fines, dates, and reasons for the penalties are now shown on the same page as other information for each school.

Last month the agency provided records on one school, including the reasons for the fine assessment, to Texas Monitor at no cost.

The Texas Monitor then asked TWC spokesman Francisco Gamez for a similar breakdown for two other schools listed on a TWC website portal that listed the fines levied on school since 2017.

Gamez refused, saying the material was obtainable only through an open records request.

A request filed in response sought records for eight schools that had been assessed fines since 2017, including New Horizons Consumer Learning Centers in San Antonio and Austin, the Houston Montessori Institute and the McAllen Careers Institute.

TWC attorney Nick Lealos this week sent The Texas Monitor the $63 bill for records that give the same information now available on the site.

A government agency is allowed to charge a requestor for research and compilation of documents, said David Kahne, a Houston attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

It’s possible that the information, which appears to have been posted to the TWC website between the time of the public records request and the receipt of the proposed bill for the information, was a matter of “one hand not knowing what the other was doing,” Kahne said.

“Our website of enforcement actions is currently continuously updated with new information of the sort sought by your request,” Lealos said. “Previously that website was updated on an annual basis.”

The agency has twice implemented changes in its trade school data in response to stories from Texas Monitor: After an April story noted the agency had not updated its list of schools closed by the agency since 2009, a new list appeared. A July story pointed out that prospective students could not readily find the reasons schools were fined. That information is now handily provided on the same page as program offerings, prices and graduation and completion rates for each school.

The information does not appear to go back further than 2016; a $1,000 fine assessed to the Houston Montessori Institute in 2015 is not listed, for example. See fines from 2014 to 2016 here.

The agency has previously been criticized by the state’s Sunset Commission for making it difficult for potential students to research the performance of for-profit schools.

“The only way for a potential student to get information about actions against a school is to submit an open records request to TWC,” Sunset Commission investigators wrote in a 2015 report.

Legislation passed in 2015 required the agency to post a searchable directory of career schools and to post “any formal enforcement action” taken against each school. Included in that requirement is “assessment of administrative penalties.”

The fines are not considered formal enforcement, according to Gamez.

 “In Career School actions, we use terms such as ‘penalty’ and ‘penalties’ because that is what is used in law and rule,” Gamez said in an email. “When a school receives notice of administrative actions, they pay the penalties detailed in the notice or request a hearing. If the school does neither, then TWC begins the process of revocation of license.”

He also insisted the penalties levied on schools are not fines:  “To be clear, these are penalties and not fines,” Gamez, who has refused interview requests, wrote in an email. The statutes requiring the posting of information use the word “penalties” and do not refer to fines.

Among the reasons schools are penalized are false advertising, failure to protect student records, admitting students without proof they have met enrollment standards and failing to ensure staff members were properly trained.

All of that could be considered valuable information for prospective students. Texas, like the rest of the country, has cracked down on rogue for-profit colleges, many of which accept federal student loan money. Between 2000 and 2010, enrollment in the colleges more than tripled, from 600,000 to two million.

Investigators starting in the mid-2000s found recruiting abuses, unqualified professors, and low academic standards in the for-profit community.

Data now available on the TWC website indicate potentially serious violations of the law governing career schools.

Some of the most popular trade schools today are computer technology institutions, particularly coding classes. Coding Dojo, a national trade school with campuses in seven states, was fined by the TWC seven times in 2018 for a total of $36,250. 

The penalties include a $19,000 fine for violations of the state’s solicitation rules, which govern how schools can entice students to sign up. Before a national crackdown on career schools, one of the most prevalent violations nationally was aiming marketing campaigns at students in poverty-stricken areas, promising graduates they could make money with their trade school training.

Coding Dojo was fined $2,000 last year for misleading advertising.

McAllen Careers Institute has been fined 12 times for a total of $30,927 since 2018, all for failing to refund student tuition in a timely manner. 

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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