Sunday, April 10, 2005

Texas' Rush to Privatize

Texas' Rush to Privatize

JOHN YOUNG Opinion page editor
The Waco Tribune-Herald

Sunday, April 10, 2005

What Texas is doing with Child Protective Services almost reminds one of the serial killer who, with shaky hand, pens, "Stop me before I kill again."

What Texas is writing relative to child protection is, "I've blown it too many times. Take this task off my hands."

There's no question that Texas has blown it – and too many times. The question: Is privatizing the answer?

Republican leaders in Austin surely would like it to be so. They'd like to see as many state operations as possible contracted away, including public schools. You see, we just can't be trusted as a state to manage our own affairs. We must hire a management firm.

A House committee last week voted to put Child Protective Services on a fast track to full privatization. The Senate has passed a more incremental bill. It privatizes recruitment of foster parents and adoptive families, but stops short of contracting out case management on suspected abuse cases. It would try a pilot project to see if the latter works.

It's odd to see the House wanting to rush into privatization, when it is clear that Texas has never given the current system sufficient resources to do what it must.

Texas spends less per capita on child protection than all but two states, an average of $110 per child compared to a national average of $167. Its child abuse caseworkers have an average caseload of 61, twice the national average.

Has CPS done its job sufficiently? A host of high-profile horror stories say no.

But a rush to privatize in Texas is comparable to a baseball team owner saying to the manager, "I realize we could afford only three infielders, and we had to recruit the catcher each game from the stands, but you're the reason why we're losing."

Should the House plan become law, it will be interesting to see how many companies will line up to try to do what the state apparently can't do with available resources. Two years ago the state set in motion the privatization of mental hospitals and group homes. The requirement was that contractors show how they could do the same thing with 25 percent less. Bidders stayed away in droves.

In the last Legislature, a restructuring of mental health-mental retardation services ordered privatization when possible but was careful not to require or assume any cost savings whatsoever.

Of course, privatizing guarantees this: Unlike bodies without a profit motive, businesses will seek to boost their caseloads and trim their costs to pump up their margins. Will this result in better services or just lower-cost services, and higher profits for those involved?

What else will come with the package? Last year an auditor's report cited $20 million in unnecessary payments to an insurance subcontractor for the Children's Health Insurance Program, as well as obscenely excessive payments – $7 million split between four consultants.

And here we were telling CHIP recipients we couldn't afford to check their teeth or provide them with eyeglasses.

Next target: schools

Don't look now, but schools are next up on the to-do list for Privatization Inc. Legislation in both houses would make it possible for private management firms to take over low-performing schools. Authors say that the privatization angle is being overplayed, since regional service centers, universities and others could do the same.

But it isn't these players who are lining up in Brooks Bros. suits. It's for-profit groups like Edison Schools, which flunked its own test run in Dallas. The school district there pulled the plug on its contract with Edison after two years.

Our Legislature seems in much too much of a hurry to abdicate state affairs to something other than the government we've created as a people, including the school boards we elect.

If our leaders lack such confidence in the enterprise of governing, maybe they should abdicate as well.

John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail: Carlos Sanchez' column will return soon.

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