Thursday, December 16, 2010

You Want Rick Scott? You Got Him.

I wondered where our fraud-inflected new governor would strike first; if Stephanie Mencimer is right, it'll be in education, where Rick Scott already has a vouchers-and-privatization plan at the ready that will no doubt sound great to many who are sick of our FCAT-obsessed public schools but that also will likely be "a fraud magnet":

As soon as the state starts handing families $5500 a year, it's virtually assured that enterprising thieves will devise various schemes to help them part with those funds, including by starting "independent" for-profit virtual schools, charter schools, and other predatory "educational" institutions. While the idea of privatizing the education system may seem like a big money saver, and no one really loves school bureaucracies, putting that much taxpayer money out there without adequate oversight (i.e. bureaucracy) is a formula for disaster.

It's not just a hypothetical harm, as charter schools in many states have demonstrated. Charter schools get paid by the number of kids they enroll, and they are free from much of the bureaucracy Republicans like to bash so much. All that money mixed with all that freedom hasn't produced much in the way of an education boost: Charter schools perform no better and often much worse than traditional ones. But they have produced a bumper crop of fraudsters.

In recent years, the US Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General has been raising red flags about charter school fraud and embezzlement, a problem that is increasing. In March, the OIG wrote that it had opened more than 40 charter school criminal investigations that resulted in the convictions of 15 charter school officials, with 24 cases still pending. Most of the cases involved charter school operators and employees who falsely increased enrollment figures and used the extra money to bankroll lavish lifestyles. They often engaged in testing and grade-fixing antics to ensure the money kept rolling in. At the time the report was released, prosecutors had recovered more than $4 million stolen by charter school employees and operators since 2005.

Scott, the former CEO of a health care company, should have a unique understanding of what sorts of predators lurk in the private sector searching out new ways to profit at the public trough. The company he used to run, Columbia/HCA, was quite adept at ripping off government programs. In 2003, the company pleaded guilty to 14 "corporate" felony charges and ended up repaying the government almost $2 billion for Medicare and Medicaid fraud. At the time, it was the largest health care fraud case in American history.

Scott, who claimed he was unaware of the massive fraud taking place at the company, oversaw an era when the company routinely overbilled the federal health plans, inflated patient diagnoses to increase reimbursements, gave kickbacks to doctors for referring patients to company facilities, filed false data about hospital space use, and engaged in other sleazy practices—practices that in some cases aren't all that different from those of dubious school operators.

*ding ding ding* The world of for-profit education is already full of operators whose main skill seems to be enrolling students, siphoning up government loan money (for which students are responsible), and then not really giving a rat's ass whether students actually, you know, learn anything. Having a vampire squid governor primed to turn an entire state's public education system into a profit source (though of course this will be disguised as "freedom!" and "choice!") would be the stuff of wet dreams for these people.

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