IDEA charter chain receives more tax dollars than UT-Austin, wants more

The IDEA charter chain, which is seeking state approval to add 27 campuses in Texas and increase its enrollment cap by almost 35,000 students, already takes a huge chunk of tax dollars from the public education budget — $498 million for 2019-20 alone. By comparison, that is more tax money than the Legislature appropriated to the University of Texas at Austin that year.

IDEA’s proposed expansion, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, would be the largest in the history of charters in Texas and would take millions of additional tax dollars from under-funded public schools.

The charter chain calls itself IDEA Public Schools, but it doesn’t operate like public schools. As do other corporate charter chains, it has a non-elected board unanswerable to taxpayers. Real public schools have elected governing boards whose members, unlike IDEA’s, live where their schools are located.

IDEA can selectively pick students. If it can’t accommodate every student who applies for one of its campuses, it creates waiting lists. Real public schools have to accept every child who lives in the district. They don’t have waiting lists. Instead, they seek class size waivers or haul in more portable classrooms.

In reality, IDEA Public Schools operate like private schools. They are public only in the sense that they get tax dollars. IDEA recruits aggressively because every enrollee brings more tax dollars at the expense of the district the charter chain has invaded.

IDEA had about 49,500 students at 92 campuses in Texas last year. Its current enrollment cap is 63,200, and it wants to increase that to 97,985.

The decision is up to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who in past years has given IDEA pretty much what it has wanted. But he has slowed down this request, apparently because of publicity highlighting how IDEA is different from real public schools in other ways as well.

Real public schools don’t lease private jets. But IDEA was all set last year to enter a $15 million, eight-year lease on a private jet for company executives until unwanted publicity killed the deal. Private donors reportedly were going to pay for the high-flying comfort, but private donations to charter schools should be spent to educate students, not pamper administrators.

Real public schools don’t lease luxury boxes for NBA games either. But IDEA used to have one, a box and tickets costing $400,000 a year for San Antonio Spurs games. Publicity killed that one too.

The chain’s then-CEO Tom Torkelson, who admitted those were some “really dumb” ideas, soon resigned from the charter company he had helped found, leaving with a $900,000 payout.

In a letter, TEA told IDEA that some people may consider the above spending “questionable” and cited other administrative issues that “might be indicative of inadequate financial oversight” – issues such as owing the Teacher Retirement System $130,000 and repeatedly failing to meet reporting deadlines for grant money.

IDEA has responded, claiming it has taken steps to clean up its act. But TSTA is urging Morath to reject the expansion request. With a pandemic and economic downturn slashing billions of dollars from state revenue and tightening under-funded school budgets, this is no time to be giving a corporate charter chain like IDEA more opportunities to snag tax dollars.

The total UT-Austin budget for 2019-20, by the way, was $3.3 billion, but only $374 million of that was state general tax revenue, compared to $498 million in tax money that the IDEA chain received. UT-Austin received much more revenue, $674 million, from tuition.

Clay Robison


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