School of Hard Knocks

State laws regulating vocational schools have been gutted. Disadvantaged students are paying the price.

aura LaRosa must leave in a few hours to report for a job that entails smiling behind the makeup counter of a local department store. What she hates most about the job is staying after work to pen a personal thank-you note to every last woman who buys a powder compact or a vial of nail polish. It's the store's way of building customer rapport.

But since her divorce, the 45-year-old LaRosa has been forced to support herself and her two kids for the first time in years, and this job is the best she's found so far. "You make the most of what you've got, right?" she says, sitting at her kitchen table. Ready for her eight-hour shift, LaRosa has donned a handsome business suit, and skillfully prepared her face: a mix of Sandstone and Topaz eye shadows, Tawny rouge, Dry Rose lipstick, and a Very Cherry lip liner that matches her hair.

Makeup is what she does best, and it's what she'd like to do professionally -- not selling tubes of lipstick, but working as a makeup artist in a salon. That requires an aesthetician's license from the state, however, and getting a license means completing 600 hours of training at a state-certified vocational school.

Following a class-action lawsuit, Zenzi's reopened at a new location South of Market.
Following a class-action lawsuit, Zenzi's reopened at a new location South of Market.
Following a class-action lawsuit, Zenzi's reopened at a new location South of Market.
Anthony Pidgeon
Following a class-action lawsuit, Zenzi's reopened at a new location South of Market.

LaRosa tried attending a beauty college once. For her money, she received a rude lesson in just how meekly the state regulates the 3,000 or so trade and vocational schools that operate in California.

In the early 1990s, when LaRosa's kids were in grade school and her marriage still rosy, she enrolled at Zenzi's Beauty College in San Francisco. She and her husband paid several thousand dollars for the education that would presumably set her on the way in her chosen field.

But Zenzi's was a disaster. The facilities were outdated, she says, and the teaching staff apathetic. "Everyone knew they didn't care," she says. "It was all about getting you in and out, like cattle."

After three months, LaRosa says it became clear that Zenzi's was not going to prepare her for much of anything. She quit, then joined her fellow students in a class-action lawsuit against the school. The students -- many of whom had taken out loans to pay for the classes -- demanded their money back, claiming that Zenzi's lied to them about the quality of the education they would receive. Students said they spent some class time watching movies and soap operas, or taking naps. Things got especially bad after a fire forced Zenzi's out of its Mount Davidson location and into temporary quarters at a recreation hall.

Ultimately, a Superior Court judge ordered Zenzi's to pay LaRosa and 129 other former students about $650,000 in refunds, interest, and penalties for breaking state laws governing vocational schools.

Three years later, LaRosa and the others have yet to see a dime of the money. The operators of Zenzi's, Curtis and Zenzi Cook, avoided paying the judgment by simply closing their business and starting a new corporation in their son's name. Zenzi's itself is still operating -- in a new location -- and has remained in business with the blessing of the state, which never yanked its license.

Even after Zenzi's stiffed them on the judgment, LaRosa and other former students still should have been able to get at least some of their money back. A special state fund was set up in 1989 specifically to reimburse students who are victimized by rogue trade schools. But that fund has been tapped out since last year, and hundreds of claims filed by students who paid good money for bad educations remain stacked up in Sacramento, with little prospect of ever being paid.

All told, the state of California's efforts to regulate trade and vocational schools utterly failed LaRosa and her classmates. And the tale of Zenzi's Beauty College is not an isolated case.

Each year, approximately 440,000 students enroll in private trade and vocational schools in California -- almost as many students as attend the University of California system and state university system combined. These students pay more than $1.34 billion in tuition each year. And many who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have to take out federally guaranteed student loans for the privilege of learning a variety of skills ranging from pipe fitting to court reporting.

The task of policing these schools -- granting them licenses, investigating complaints filed against them, dropping in from time to time to ensure that all is as it should be -- falls to the Bureau for Private and Postsecondary Vocational Education, a division of the state Department of Consumer Affairs.

By many accounts, the bureau is doing a pathetic job. It has allowed schools with poor track records, like Zenzi's, to remain in business even after students have proven in a court of law that the school cheated them. It has fallen years behind in reviewing licenses and investigating complaints.

In the worst cases, as the bureau drags its feet, students burned by bad trade schools have seen their credit ruined and their wages garnished after finding themselves with loans to pay but no skills to offer employers.

Things were not always this bad. In the early 1990s, in fact, California's regulation of trade schools was among the most aggressive in the country. But then the vocational school industry got organized, paid some lobbyists, and convinced the Legislature and former Gov. Pete Wilson to gut the laws. The state's most disadvantaged students have been paying the price ever since.

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