For massage students in Oklahoma, these are troubling times.
A nationwide closure of vocational schools, including schools that offered massage programs, such as Heritage College, has left fewer schools operating in the state.
On top of this, in May, the governor signed Bill 687, the massage therapy practice act, into law, marking the first time Oklahoma’s massage therapists have to become licensed. This means anyone who wants to work as a massage therapist must complete at least 500 hours of massage education.
The timing of the two events has dealt a one-two punch to future massage therapists. Abandoned students are now scrambling to find alternate paths to their career.
To understand the storm created for Oklahoma’s massage students, a reporter contacted the Oklahoma Board of Private Vocational Schools (OBPVS), which oversees the licensing of massage schools, and the Oklahoma State Board of Cosmetology and Barbering, which oversees the licensing of massage therapists. A longtime provider of massage education in Oklahoma, who is offering an innovative way for students to navigate the chaos, also provided his perspective on this situation.
The Wild West
Until very recently, Oklahoma was one of four states considered the Wild West of massage therapy because it had no statewide massage regulation. (Kansas, Vermont and Wyoming are the other three states, and those still do not regulate massage.)
Until Bill 687, massage therapy in Oklahoma had never been regulated. (With the law now in place, massage therapists practicing in the state must hold a state massage license beginning May 1, 2017.)
According to Andre Fountain, founder of Praxis College of Massage in Oklahoma City, this lack of regulation was codified in the 1940s when the state imported large numbers of massage therapists from Europe to help patients struck by the polio virus. In those trying times—the wake of the Dust Bowl displacement—the government realized that requiring the newly arrived therapists to become licensed would slow down the delivery of a much-needed service, he said.
The state’s non-regulatory tradition continued for many decades. Massage therapists could learn as much as would be required to set up a business and then let the free market decide who was successful.
But the issue of non-regulation was not quite this simple, according to Nora Ann House, director of the Oklahoma Board of Private Vocational Schools. She said the arrangement had some unfortunate side effects, one of which was that massage therapists who moved to other states would need to re-train in order to meet their new state’s standards. Also, several cities had started licensing therapists, and rules varied greatly from place to place.
The push to regulate Oklahoma’s massage therapists started in the 1980s, and national associations lobbied for the law for several decades.
The state’s massage therapy practice act requires that all Oklahoma massage therapists obtain a massage therapy license in order to practice. Additionally, it requires that anyone using any title indicating that he or she is a massage therapist, or who uses the term “massage” in his or her advertising, have a license.
The bill authorizes the State Board of Cosmetology and Barbering to issue licenses, establish rules for continuing education, and investigate license holders for violations.
Sherry Lewelling, director of the State Board of Cosmetology and Barbering, points out that the act contains a grandfather clause for licensees who apply before April 30, 2017.
Under the clause, those wanting to be grandfathered in must submit proof of liability insurance and documentation of any criminal history. They will also need to show that they have completed a massage school’s training with 500 hours’ education; or completed a nationally recognized examination; or possess five years’ work experience.
A Voice of Dissent
Fountain had long opposed state regulation of massage, but told MASSAGE Magazine that he sat back when Bill 687 came along.
“I decided, if you want a massage law, go ahead and get a massage law,” he said.
According to Fountain, the law could damage the reputation of massage therapy, due to the entity overseeing it.
“They passed the law and they put us under the medical board,” he explained. “And at the last minute, without any input from the massage industry, they moved us over to the Cosmetology Board. Massage in Oklahoma is now considered a beautification process.”
Lewelling said this change was made because the State Board of Cosmetology and Barbering has a better ability to do inspections of massage establishments than does the medical board.
“There are a lot of negative elements associated with massage therapy, such as prostitution and human trafficking,” she said. “It’s my understanding that was one of the key factors in placing them under us—so we would have the authority to do inspections.”
The massage therapy practice act also cemented the Oklahoma Board of Private Vocational Schools’ role in licensing massage schools. According to House, “Bill 687 confirmed that the legislature wants us to continue licensing massage schools. What we do is provide minimum standards. We address instructor qualifications, the physical facilities, the financial status, and the disclosures made to prospective students, so that the students know what they are getting.”
Even as the massage therapy practice act was headed toward becoming law, changes were in the works for the vocational school industry. Private vocational schools were gaining an increasingly notorious reputation for overcharging students and falsifying job placement data, and the federal government started to investigate. Under pressure, many vocational schools began closing their doors.
Private vocational schools have been closing throughout the U.S. for the past five years, as the U.S. Department of Education continues to take action to prevent students—consumers—from being taken advantage of.
In many cases, students who were on the cusp of graduating have arrived at their schools, and instead of going inside and attending their classes, they read letters posted on the front door explaining that the institution is permanently closed.
“If you look at all the schools’ letters to their students, they all say pretty much the same thing,” said Fountain. “The purpose is to keep anybody from being able to sue them once they close.
“They’re closing because the government came in and said, ‘You’re taking government money and government loans and we’re seeing nothing for it. And your paperwork is bogus. Your graduation rates are bogus. And your job placement is bogus. And you have no quality controls,’” he added.
Critics of the vocational school industry have made the case that the closures were long overdue; yet, there is no denying that students of these institutions were cheated. Not only were they denied graduation after putting in the requisite work, they have been left with unpaid loans.
A reporter requested contact information for students from Praxis College and the Oklahoma Board of Private Vocational Schools, but was told that information could not be provided.
Massage Education Uncertainty
“Up until this law was passed, nobody needed to go to school,” Fountain said. “Many [people] went to school … just long enough to get the skills that they needed in order to make a living. So, we [are getting] hit with all these past students saying, ‘I need to go back and finish my program, I need to finish my degree.’”
The combination of a massage therapy practice act becoming law and the sudden creation of an army of disgruntled students in need of an education in order to be in compliance with the law has created a perfect storm of massage education uncertainty, one that Oklahoma’s massage students have not yet found shelter from.
Phillip Weber is a San Diego, California-based writer and co-founder of The English Adept, a language-learning website where he blogs frequently. He writes news and features for MASSAGE Magazine, including “Sports Massage Therapist Heads to the Olympic Games,” “Massage Therapists Adopt the Food Truck Trend,” “Indy 500 Driver Gets Up to Speed with Massage” and “Massage Meets the Challenge at a Multidisciplinary Clinic.”