Month: February 2020

Public education needs fewer high-flying entrepreneurs

The IDEA charter chain’s high-flying business model for public education had to make an emergency landing after public outrage over what CEO Tom Torkelson admitted were some “really dumb” ideas. Ideas like spending $2 million a year to lease a private jet for the convenience of IDEA officials and paying $400,000 a year for a luxury box and tickets for San Antonio Spurs’ games.

The Spurs’ box and tickets supposedly were used to reward IDEA employees for reaching employment goals and reward students for good academic work, but you will have a difficult time convincing me that state legislators and other public officials also weren’t invited to enjoy the amenities of the luxury suite while their influence was being peddled to benefit IDEA’s ambitious expansion plans.

This is still another example of how corporate charter chains think they can operate in Texas’ insufficient regulatory climate. I wonder if any of the charter regulators over at the Texas Education Agency ever enjoyed IDEA’s hospitality for an NBA game.

IDEA – like other corporate-style charter chains – is classified as “public” by state law, but it is operated by a private board of directors who are not answerable to the taxpayers. IDEA Public Schools is what the chain calls itself, but it is “public” mainly in the sense that it gets state tax dollars for every student it enrolls, including those it takes from traditional public schools.

Charters are now taking about $3 billion a year from Texas’ underfunded school districts because where the students go, the tax dollars go.

Because of the public outrage – and not the Texas Education Agency – IDEA has jettisoned the private jet idea and, Torkelson says, will quit spending money on Spurs’ entertainment after this NBA season ends.

The CEO said all the money spent on the Spurs — and what would have been spent on the jet – would have come from private donations, which supplement the tax funding. Donors to IDEA have included the Walton Family Foundation and other organizations dedicated to expanding the privatization of public schools throughout the country.

But every donated dollar spent on a jet or basketball ticket is a dollar not spent on educating children.

The Houston Chronicle reported that IDEA also will end insider business deals with its own leaders and their relatives for supplies and services to the charter chain, a practice that often ends in criminal indictments if uncovered in most public school districts.

IDEA now enrolls about 51,000 students in about 50 schools in Texas, mainly in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio and Austin, but it has ambitious expansion plans in Texas and elsewhere. It claims great academic success, but questions have been raised about its claims. And, like other charters but unlike traditional public schools, IDEA can cherry-pick its students. It refuses to take students with serious disciplinary records, for example.

Torkelson, who co-founded IDEA, is a former Teach for America teacher. According to Source Watch, his total compensation in 2016 was $465,015, higher than most, if not all, public school district superintendents in Texas.

The CEO said IDEA’s aim is to be “entrepreneurial and different from traditional education systems.” Public education, though, needs fewer high-flying entrepreneurs who seem to be more interested in their “business models” than their students.

Clay Robison