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The department charged with regulating more than 1,000 vocational schools and other private postsecondary institutions has "placed the public at risk" through inadequate oversight, according to a new state audit.

Lawmakers created the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education after its predecessor agency shut down following years of criticism from critics who said it offered students little protection from dishonest school operators.

"Unfortunately, during our current audit of the bureau, we found that many of the problems of the past persist today, four years after the Legislature reestablished the bureau to fill the regulatory void left by the sunset of its predecessor," reads today's Bureau of State Audits report.

Auditors reviewed 10 institutions regulated by the bureau, including a commercial truck-driving school and a degree-granting institution.

The audit recommends several improvements, including cutting the bureau's responsibilities or shifting them to another state department entirely.

Compliance inspections still take months longer than they are supposed to, the audit found. Proposed schools face lengthy delays in receiving permission to operate. And the bureau takes an average of 290 days — more than three times the 90-day goal — to process student claims for reimbursement after schools go out of business.

"The bureau also failed to appropriately respond to complaints against institutions, even when students' safety was allegedly at risk," the audit found.

The bureau is part of the Department of Consumer Affairs. In her response to the audit, department Director Denise Brown said the department agrees with the auditor's recommendations but took issue with the title of Tuesday's audit: "Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education: It has consistently failed to meet its responsibility to protect the public's interest."

"In our opinion, we do not believe that the title of the report accurately reflects the conditions found at the BPPE," Brown wrote.

The audit follows a December review of the bureau by the Legislative Analyst's Office. That report suggested that the bureau focus its energies on schools that have a history of problems.

PHOTO: A student inspects the engine compartment of a truck at the Center for Employment Training, a vocational school, in 2009. A new Bureau of State Audits report examines how such schools and other private institutions have been regulated by the state. The Sacramento Bee/Paul Kitagaki Jr.


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