One of the major strengths of our network of private parent-choice residential schools and programs for struggling teens has been its innovation, creativity and ability to rapidly apply new insights and research toward helping children. This has resulted in a wide variety of approaches to helping children, each school or program dealing with problem areas in which they are especially strong.
When parents decide their child needs residential placement, they now can choose from among many quality schools and programs to find the right match between a school or program's strengths and their child's needs. The resulting network of choices for parents and their children is vastly superior to the old hospital and RTC one-size-fits-all system that was all too common before this network came into existence.
The growth of this network has been amazing. We are currently tracking about 650 private parent-choice residential schools and programs around the country, and even with the economy being in the doldrums, there are still a significant number of new start-ups seemingly every month.
The growth of this dynamic network has been possible because in the past it has been relatively easy for a dedicated individual to open a program. In the past, all an educational visionary who wanted to establish a residential program needed to do was prepare some space and activities for the children, conform to minimal basic state licensing (perhaps just a foster home approval) and get the word out. Some very successful schools and programs started in this "bootstrap" manner allowed by open access. Essentially, anybody who had a desire could try. Deep financial pockets were helpful but not necessary.
However, the screening out process starts immediately and never ends. Those who really didn't know what they were doing rapidly learned there was much more to providing a program than just providing room and board for kids. These naïve startups consequently closed fairly rapidly, if they even ever opened. Others with no marketing contacts or knowledge never received any inquiries and gave up. Still others couldn't gain the confidence of any parents or referring professionals and rapidly closed. Then too some didn't have the monetary resources to withstand slow periods or charged too little for tuition so they also closed.
Those schools and programs that survived for the most part were those individuals who had some experience working with struggling teens and either knew what was required or rapidly learned, had some experience and knowledge of how to market themselves, and were financially strong and sophisticated enough to pay the bills while getting established. Once established, the founders needed to have the insight to modify their school or program to meet the actual needs of the students and parents, thus gaining a reputation that resulted in future enrollments.
This is an ongoing screening process and many schools and programs that were initially successful floundered and were forced to close down for many reasons. Even schools and programs that had been successful for years sometimes lose their edge, or made unwise financial decisions, and either overextended themselves or were forced to close in the face of declining enrollments.
The CEDU schools are a prime example of how even a flourishing system of schools can flounder from a series of bad management decisions. This is healthy in that the inadequate are forced to go away, and those that survived were the ones that gained the confidence of parents and child-care professionals, usually because they provided quality services.
These automatic and natural screening-out processes work to protect the students and parents from inferior schools and programs. It is not perfect, of course, and inferior schools and programs unfortunately do manage to survive, but I have seen many poor programs go under because they were weak or lost their competitive edge.
One thing that happens when there is open access is that established schools and programs need to maintain their flexibility in quality service to their students and parents. If they don't, new start-ups with new approaches and ideas based on recent research will start to attract students away from the more established schools. Thus open access is a major factor in creating a dynamic network that continually improves the quality of services available to children and their parents and keeps up with the times.
However, what might happen if this open access becomes extremely restricted? This is something that is very possible if proposed state and federal regulations become too intrusive. A certain amount of regulations and oversight is necessary of course; schools and programs operating in total isolation from society without any kind of oversight can too easily become abusive and harmful. But when regulation becomes draconian, students and parents lose the protections provided by the system I outlined above.
The natural protection that comes from a dynamic interaction between professionals, schools and programs, and the parents would be lost in exchange for the overriding decisions of civil servants who might or might not know much about working with struggling children. Although with heavy regulations the government might actually close down a few inferior schools and programs that are abusive or harmful to children, several other things would also happen that are not in the best interests of the children and their families:
- There would be fewer start-ups, thus reducing the pressure on established schools and programs to respond to competition and changes in children's needs and new insights from on-going research. Schools could more easily stay in their comfort zone with the mentality that "if our program is good enough for this year, it will be good enough for the next 30 years." This mentality tends to be very common in the public sector.
- Investor money will become more important for a person wanting to start a new program because considerable finances are necessary to survive bureaucratic hurdles. This will increase the number of situations where the real owner, as opposed to the child care professional, will make management decisions based more on profits and money matters than the child-care professional's priority of what is best for the children.
- It will increase corporate ownership of multiple programs as opposed to individuals or small businesses owning schools and programs because large corporations have more resources to respond to regulatory criticisms or legal challenges and the resulting costs, both in becoming licensed and in defending themselves.
It is important we find a balance between totally open access and heavy regulations. The goal is to regulate totally open access enough to give the government enough authority to close down schools and programs that virtually all would agree should not be allowed to operate. But if we go too far and create a heavily regulated environment, the result will tend to be static schools and programs primarily run by money interests. That would not be good for children nor their parents. We need to retain enough open access that this network of private parent-choice residential schools and programs can continue to provide dynamic and constantly improving services for struggling teens and their parents.