Romano: Private sector no panacea for public services

Published Jun. 2, 2015

Somewhere along the line, we collectively decided to hate our government.

Not in a philosophical (gotta love that Constitution) or a jingoistic (don't touch that flag) sense, but rather in a bureaucracy-is-a-pain-in-the-butt kind of way.

We determined, with some justification, that anything government related had to be bloated, inefficient and possibly corrupt.

So we began handing our tax dollars over to the private sector, figuring the business community would be an improvement over anything the civil servants were doing.

What we have learned, with plenty of justification, is anything that profits from tax revenues is streamlined, inefficient and definitely corrupt.

I was reminded of this Monday morning after seeing news reports of Gov. Rick Scott ducking questions while visiting an elementary school in South Florida.

It seems Miami Herald reporters have been trying to get the governor to discuss a report the newspaper did last month about Florida's for-profit higher-ed industry.

Basically, the investigation showed that state legislators have passed a bunch of laws the past six years that have made it easier for these niche colleges to expand and suck up millions of tax dollars used by veterans, the disabled and the jobless to get educations.

Nothing wrong with that, per se.

The problem is the Herald pointed out that some of these colleges charge way more than state schools and produce far worse results.

For instance, the Hollywood campus of the Dade Medical College charged nearly $48,000 for a two-year degree. Yet only 13 percent of its graduates passed the RN license exam. Nearby community colleges charge about $9,000 for a similar degree and have passage rates between 70 and 90 percent.

You might feel better knowing there is an oversight board that is supposed to keep an eye on these colleges to make sure they aren't ripping off students. Unfortunately, the board is essentially populated by the same executives who run the schools.

And while students don't always get a good return from for-profit schools, politicians do. The Herald pointed out that state legislators and our folks in Congress have pocketed more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the schools in recent years.

Now, to be fair, these private sector problems aren't isolated to higher ed.

For instance, a couple of years ago, the state turned over medical care of prison inmates to a for-profit company to the tune of $48 million a year.

In return, prison deaths have increased 10 percent and, after visiting a number of facilities, a state senator said there was a critical lack of nurses and doctors on duty. At least, in this case, the governor was moved to order an investigation of what exactly taxpayers have been getting for their money.

Then there is the issue of charter schools, which have exploded in Florida in the past decade. These are schools run by private companies with public money.

Many of these schools have been lauded for providing outstanding alternative education. But, because our state Legislature has been so eager to promote private education, there is little oversight in approving charter applications, and nearly one of every four schools ends up shutting its doors.

One charter company recently closed schools in Jacksonville and near Orlando with no advance notice just months before the end of the academic year. And, it's worth remembering, every charter that closes represents tax dollars that were diverted from a traditional public school.

So what's my point?

You have every right to be suspicious about the money passing through our government institutions. Whether it's transportation, education, law enforcement or some other service provided by tax revenues, there's a pretty good chance you'll find wasteful spending.

Just don't assume the private sector will always be the better alternative for government funds.