School of Hard Knocks

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

For trade school owners, the new laws were a welcome relief. "Any time you shut down an entire bureaucracy -- that's a good thing," says Smith. "We cleared out the entire staff."

Wilson appointed a pro-industry education consultant from Carson City as the first bureau chief, but he got very little done before Gray Davis became governor and promptly fired him. Davis appointed Douglas Laue as the bureau's interim director, but Laue had no experience in education. He had spent 10 years as deputy chief of the Bureau of Automotive Repair. Making matters worse, Laue was dividing his time between his new role overseeing vocational schools and his other position as deputy director of the California Medical Board.

Slowly but surely, the paperwork began to pile up. By the end of its first year, the bureau reported that it had massive backlogs: 446 applications for school licenses, 1,845 compliance reviews, and 662 claims against the Student Tuition Recovery Fund. The bureau was doing half of what the council had done a year before. At that point the tuition recovery fund had been cut in half as well, dwindling from $1.2 million in 1995 down to $589,000.

Laura LaRosa has never gotten back any of the tuition she paid Zenzi's.
Anthony Pidgeon
Laura LaRosa has never gotten back any of the tuition she paid Zenzi's.

In a January 1999 letter sent to an attorney representing hundreds of angry students, the bureau estimated that it would be at least another year and a half before it was up to speed. "The bureau faced an impossible task," the letter said. "It has performed all of its duties to the best of its ability within the operating constraints it was given."

Students complained that the bureau wouldn't investigate their complaints, or respond to their requests for payment from the Tuition Recovery Fund. "They wouldn't pick up their phones," says Gabrielle Snedeker, who lost thousands of dollars at a surgical-assisting school in Chico. "I didn't believe anyone actually worked there."

But the bureau's collapse was not nearly as horrifying to the schools' owners; they had finally gotten the state off their backs.

At 9:30 on a recent morning, Zenzi's, all white light and mirrors, is already hopping with customers. A wall by the front door is decorated with fancy-looking certificates, including the L'Oreal de Paris,the Diplome de Specialiste, Tienture pour Cheveux, a degree Zenzi Cook apparently earned while living in France. Anyone walking into the school, now at 843 Howard, would have no idea that this is essentially the very Zenzi's that Laura LaRosa once attended, the school that lost a class-action lawsuit for cheating its former students.

Current students, wearing black T-shirts with a cursive "Zenzi's" splashed across the front, do their best imitations of professional stylists. Marcus Cook, a large, jowly man in his early 30s with a goatee and thick mass of pomaded curls, introduces himself as the owner. Gazing up fondly at a portrait of his grandmother on the wall, he says the school springs from his family's 68-year history of cutting hair. His grandmother was a stylist, then his mother started the college 16 years ago. Now he owns the business (his parents are getting on in years, he explains), though he has never earned a cosmetology license.

He describes the school as a place for students who are serious about styling. Many of the students have finished college, others are looking for a change of career.

Significantly, Cook notes that all of the school's students pay their tuition without any help from the government. Zenzi's is what you call a "cash-pay" school, Cook says, the only one of its kind in the area. The school doesn't want any dilettantes who might use student loans to enroll at the school on a lark, he explains. Cash-pay ensures the students are serious about the profession, he says.

"We played the financial aid game for a while," he says. "We decided it wasn't for us. We're much happier dealing in cash."

Actually, the school doesn't have much choice in the matter. The federal government cut off its ability to offer guaranteed loans in 1994, midway through the class-action lawsuit brought by the school's former students in 1991.

In their suit, a group of aspiring cosmetologists claimed the school had not delivered on the promises it made. Zenzi's had lied about the number of its graduates that had gone on to pass the state licensing exam and find work in the field, the students claimed.

"They sold us on these stories of how the school was state-of-the-art, and that's why we were paying all this money, when, in fact, it was real mom-and-pop," says Matthew Dodds, who attended Zenzi's for a few months in 1993.

The case dragged on until 1997, when Superior Court Judge Alfred Chiantelli, while dismissing some of the students' claims, ruled that students who had enrolled at the school after the Waters Act became law were entitled to damages. Chiantelli found that Zenzi's had, as the students claimed, misrepresented the job placement rates of its graduates, one year claiming a near 70 percent placement rate when it actually was less than 50 percent.

Chiantelli ruled that the former students were due a total of $328,119 in refunds and interest. As further punishment, he ordered Zenzi's to pay double that figure for violating the new laws.

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