January 29, 2011; Source: Florida Times-Union | Two Republican legislators in Florida are promoting a bill that would privatize the function of certifying child welfare workers to work with abused and neglected children. They say that moving the function out of the Department of Children and Families would save the state more than $1 million in staffing and contracting costs.

The agency counters that the move "could dilute the system's effectiveness." The state currently contracts with the University of South Florida and Florida Atlantic University to do the certification work under the current system, and presumably both universities would not be eligible third-party certification entities under the privatization scheme.

Whether saving or diluting, the privatization move has an unusual feature. According to the Florida Times-Union, there is only one private organization in the state that would be eligible to carry out this task, the nonprofit Florida Certification Board, whose executive director controls a political action committee (PAC) that has made campaign contributions to the two sponsors of the legislation.

The sums of money are pretty small, $2,200 for one of the two this past December and $3,150 over a number of years to the other. The executive director of the Certification Board, Neal McGarry, takes home $206,560 for running the 6-person organization, based on a base salary of $165,000 and incentive or bonus money of $41,560. The certification contract with the state would be worth about $350,000 the first year and approximately $177,000 annually after that.

Although the headline of the story in the Times-Union intimates that McGarry's PAC contributions to the bill sponsors make the legislation a little questionable, given the Certification Board's singular qualifications for the function, the sums are pretty paltry for buying off the two legislators and the amount of contract money in play isn't huge, even for the Florida Certification Board.

The Certification Board has a number of other certification functions in the state, so it isn't exactly unqualified. The real issues here are not whether one nonprofit would get the contract under the new system, but whether other components of the revised child welfare worker certification scheme are problematic or not. Some of the revisions at issue are the potential elimination of training money provided by the Department to child welfare agencies to help their staff get qualified and certified, and the elimination of the requirement that caseworkers seeking certification have field experience (eliminating on-the-job assessment potentials).

Privatization, whether to nonprofits or for-profits, is no panacea and could potentially weaken a system if important supports aren't sustained.—Rick Cohen