Thursday, December 15, 2022

Profiteering Does Not Mix With Human Service

The line that jumps out in the story is this one:

“I feel like this is not being ran as a school but as a business,” the parent told Washington’s education department. “Kids seem to be a paycheck.”

The story is a ProPublica piece about United Health Services, a Washington state company that hoovered up $38 million in taxpayer dollars to provide special education services. And, unsurprisingly, parents and former teachers charge the company with cutting corners, short-changing students, and just generally failing to provide the services it promises to provide.

The company runs private companies like Northwest SOIL, Washington state’s largest publicly funded private school for children with disabilities, where one administrator quit after banging her head on a corporate brick wall that would not provide the resources necessary to fulfill its promises. After being required to cut staff hours, she banged out a resignation letter.

“It is truly like living in the dark ages,” she wrote about the school, detailing its cost cutting at the expense of students. “I cannot ethically or morally be a part of this any longer.”

UHS, ProPublica notes, 

is one player in a small but growing market of special education and disability services, as investors recognize the potential for profit from insurance, public education funding and other sources. A February report by a private equity watchdog group noted a flurry of recent corporate acquisitions of autism service providers. One national broker marketing the sale of a special-needs private school group touted it as a good investment and “extremely profitable.”

There's a lot to unpack in this article, but I want to note two important things here.

One--this is yet another reminder that profiteering and human services don't mix.

Two--what the article describes is a school voucher system. This one is for special ed, but this is how any school voucher system works.

This is school choice in action. The money is following each child, equipping each child with a backpack full of cash, and that turns each child into a courier, a conveyance, a cash cow. This is a system (and it is a system, no matter how much choicers insist that we should fund students, not systems) in which a child's function is to carry money to the profiteers operating the "schools." 

As one expert puts it

“There’s a lot of money at stake here,” said Kathleen Hulgin, a University of Cincinnati associate professor who studies the funding of private special education schools. Companies know they can depend on steady revenue with a “stable, publicly funded system.”

In a school choice system that is wedded to the marketplace, the interests of the owners of the education-flavored businesses will always conflict with the interests of the children. Always. And the main means of maximizing profit will always be to find ways to spend less and less serving the "customers." 

The defense offered by UHS and its various wholly-owned subsidiaries is a familiar one-- we haven't broken any laws, we provide exactly as much as the law requires. 

And in many states, that's particularly alarming because the law requires very little. 

Corner cutting is the least of the terrible outcomes. We have only to look at the privatized health care industry to see the worst cases in action, like this story about a hospital in Pennsylvania.

Or rather, what used to be a hospital, because the private equity company that bought it judged it too hard to make profitable, even after stripping away various services. The problem was that the hospital served too many poor people. So they shut it down.

As I've said repeatedly, the goal of making a profit is not inherently evil. But it does not mix well with human services. 

I can opt out of certain commercial transactions for a variety of reasons. I might not buy a velvet widget because I don't like it or because I can't afford it. But I can't opt out of needing to have a broken leg set, a disease treated, or emergency treatment for a sudden medical issue. I can't opt out of an education for my child, especially if my child requires special accommodations to get it. That gives these sorts of operations a built in customer base, but if the service is provided by someone in search of profit, they have no incentive to provide anything but the least they can get away with and still make money. 

Venture capitalists, hedge funders, private equity owners-- put them in the education business, turn loose children carrying backpacks full of cash, and the business focus will be on collecting those backpacks. Those who believe in economism might shrug and say, "Well, yes. What else would possibly motivate people other than the chance to collect cash?" But for folks who believe in bigger things, the problem is obvious. If you're going to take care of people, you've got to have your eyes on their humanity and needs, and not the cash strapped to their backs. 

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