By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
First it was KIPP, then it was YES Prep and now IDEA has become the point of the destroy public education (DPE) spear in Texas. KIPP flourished because GAP founders Don and Doris Fisher gave them big money. YES Prep so excited Oprah that she presented them with a million dollar check during a TV interview. Now, John Arnold has given IDEA $10 million to expand into Houston and the El Paso based Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development has pledged another $10 million for IDEA to expand into El Paso.
The oddest DPE-inspired plan of all comes from Austin, Texas. In 2016, the Austin American Statesman reported that the relatively small KLE foundation is committing $16 million to IDEA. Odd because that represents more than half of the foundation’s assets and is 20 times greater than any previous grant. The Statesman article says, “The financial gift … will more than double IDEA Austin’s previous expansion plans by 2022, and the charter school says the donation will help it boost enrollment to 20,000 students, more than 12 times as many as it has now.”
A recent article in the Santa Fe New Mexican says about the IDEA growth initiative, “Those plans include expanding to 173 pre-K, elementary, middle and high schools from Texas to Louisiana and Florida by 2022 — a goal of serving 100,000 students compared to 35,595 today.”
YES Prep, KIPP and IDEA have many similarities. All three charter school systems were started by Teach for America (TFA) alums. None of the founders had more than three years of experience teaching, nor did they have any education training other than a five-week TFA summer course. It is perplexing when industry leaders like Walton, Fisher, Broad and Gates lavish inexperienced and untrained school founders with millions of dollars.
Marketing and Publicity Are IDEA’s Strength
Patrick Michels of the Texas Observer wrote,
“IDEA is one of the hottest charter chains in Texas today, based in the Rio Grande Valley, with a recent expansion into Central Texas. The chain just won a $29 million federal Race To the Top grant, an extremely competitive program that only one other Texas school won (another charter, Harmony Public Schools).”
“IDEA is part of a preferred class of charters in Texas today, along with KIPP, Yes Prep and Harmony.”
This was written in December 2012, the day after community members in Austin had succeeded in driving IDEA out of their neighborhood.
The other charter system that won Race to the Top money is believed to be part of Fethullah Gulen’s charter empire. The Houston Chronicle reported, “Long criticized by conservative Texans for alleged ties to a controversial Turkish scholar, the state’s largest charter school system now faces attacks from inside the Turkish government.” Turkey’s leaders accuse the Gulen cult of fermenting the coup attempt against President Erdogan and financing it with charter school money.
The IDEA internet site’s biography of co-founder Tom Torkelson states,
“By 2009, the U.S. News and World Report ranked IDEA Donna College Preparatory as the 13th best high school and second best charter high school in the nation. Also in 2009, IDEA Public Schools was the first-ever charter organization to be named the best school system in the state of Texas and received the H-E-B Excellence in Education Award. Today, The Washington Post’s latest rankings of America’s Most Challenging High Schools ranked all seven of IDEA’s eligible College Preparatory high schools in the top 200 high schools nationwide and in the top 50 in Texas.
A Huffington Post article describes the U.S. News school ranking methodology, “[The] rankings today were derived from its list of top high schools published in 2009 based on participation rates and how students in those schools performed on math and science AP exams.” U.S. News uses advanced class registration rates and testing data for their rankings. These are not valid measures of school or teacher quality.
In 2016, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post rated IDEA charter high school the most challenging in the nation. Mathews rates schools by what he calls “the Challenge Index,” which is the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June. Charter schools that shed students without replacing them now own all of the top spots in this index; not deeply meaningful.
The H-E-B Excellence in Education award is given out by the H-E-B stores. In 2016 Caleb Swaringen a teacher at IDEA College Preparatory McAllen received $1,000 for himself and $1,000 for his school for receiving the H-E-B leadership award. H-E-B, with sales of more than $23 billion, operates more than 380 stores in Texas and Mexico. H-E-B awards are based on recommendations from the public.
2016 was a very good year for IDEA publicity. At the National Charter Schools conference, Gregory McGinty, executive director of The Broad Foundation, announced that IDEA had won the $250,000 broad prize. Broad also gave IDEA another $392,333 that same year.
IDEA claims “Since our first graduating class in 2007, 100% of our seniors have been accepted to colleges and universities nationwide.” They claim they educate underserved students and that their schools outperform other schools (meaning on testing).
Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd and The Texas Public Policy Foundation just published a new paper calling for Texas to streamline the charter application. They note that charter school growth has slowed and blame the onerous application process. They ask, “Why are public charter schools growing at slower rates if they have served communities so well?”
What Happens When IDEA’s Claims are Examined?
The name, IDEA Public Schools, is misleading. IDEA is not a public school. Just like a construction company contracted by a city to replace sewer lines is not a public corporation. In a recent Busted Pencils podcast, Network for Public Education (NPE) Executive Director Carol Burris explained that to be a public school requires two aspects: (1) The school must be publicly funded and (2) the school must be governed by an elected local entity such as a district board.
Diane Ravitch recently noted that courts have ruled that charter schools are not public schools. She shared,
“They are privately managed corporate schools. Federal courts have ruled that charter schools are ‘not state actors.’ The NLRB has ruled that charter schools are “not state actors.”’
In 2011, Austin’s then Superintendent of Schools Meria Carstarphen contracted with IDEA to assume the management of two elementary schools. Much of the community was outraged.
Statewide Organizing Community eMpowerment (SOCM) sponsored community forums on the IDEA question. They recounted,
“During the forums, it soon became amply clear that IDEA’s “direct teaching” curriculum consisted of little more than constant preparation for standardized tests with the students endlessly parroting answers to questions anticipated to be on the state’s Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). IDEA later even admitted that its students in the Rio Grande Valley wore uniforms which were color-coded, not on the basis of grade or age, but on standardized test-score achievement, thus insuring the humiliation of older siblings by their more test-savvy younger brothers and sisters attending the same school!”
A humorous Austin blogger who goes by Walter Crunkite related an incident from the first meeting between the community and IDEA leadership. He said,
“Tom Torkelson, CEO of IDEA, responds to an Eastside Memorial student’s question about Special Education. Torkelson states that he doesn’t believe in dyslexia. ‘Dys-teach-ia’ is the problem.”
In late 2011, The Texas American Federation of Teachers (TAFT) contracted Professor Ed Fuller to research IDEA’s claims. He is employed as an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis in the Education Policy Studies department in the College of Education of Penn State University and as Associate Director for Policy for the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA). Fuller asserts,
“TAFT NEVER asked me to arrive at specific conclusions. They simply asked me to examine the data and report back.”
Fuller’s report is quite lengthy. He examines three claims: (1) IDEA educates “underserved” student populations; (2) One-hundred percent of IDEA graduates enroll in post-secondary institutions of education; and, (3) IDEA Charter schools outperform other schools.
Professor Fuller posted the report on his personal blog where he writes,
“My conclusions, for those of you who don’t want to read through the post, are as follows:
“1) IDEA Charter schools do not enroll “underserved” students regardless of the measure used to identify “underserved.” Specifically, as compared to schools in the same market, IDEA schools enroll lower percentages of economically disadvantaged students, special education students, bilingual education students, students requiring modifications or accommodations on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), and students scoring below average on the TAKS mathematics or TAKS readings tests.
“2) IDEA Charter schools send 100% of graduates to post-secondary institutions of higher education only if the actual number of graduates is the group of students examined. If we consider the number of students starting in the 9th grade … the percentage of IDEA students … is, at best, around 65% for the cohort of 9th grade students in 2009.
“3) One reason why IDEA secondary schools outperform [on testing] high schools in the same area is because IDEA Charter schools lose a greater proportion of lower performing students than higher performing students. …”
Carstarphen’s Austin Independent School District (AISD) attacked Fuller’s report with a report of their own. Fuller wrote a defense of his study and noted that Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig, then a researcher at UT Austin and now Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State University Sacramento, had this to say about the two reports: “Dr. Fuller’s work is very comprehensive,” and “The AISD rebuttal is very weak in its methodology.”
David Knight and David deMatthews warn the people of El Paso that “choice” is not all that it is cracked up to be. They wrote,
“The IDEA charter chain is known for having a high graduation rate, but also known for the large number of its graduates who flunk out of college.”
“IDEA’s growth can also create an undue burden and disrupt natural proportions of students with disabilities enrolled in traditional public schools if they engage in what has been called ‘creaming’ or ‘cherry-picking’ students. According to 2016-17 publicly available data, all IDEA charter schools in Hidalgo, Texas, enroll only 4.8 percent of students with disabilities, while the state average is 8.8 percent.”
AlterNet carried an article by another critic of IDEA, Danny Weil. He stated, “IDEA is a retail charter outfit that standardizes curriculum downwards, away from critical thinking, embracing instead rote memorization and regurgitation, or what I call the ‘anorexic/bulimic’ learning model of intellectual atrophy, ossification, and decay.”
Money! Money! Money!
Compared with the highest paid Superintendents of Schools in Texas, three executives from IDEA would be in the top ten plus Torkelson and Truscheit would be numbers one and two respectively on the top paid list. The fourteen highest paid staff at this “non-profit” each received more than $150,000 per year for a total dispersal of $3,581,436.
At the end of 2016, IDEA’s asset value climbed to $680,172,540 and their year’s income was $332,775,059.
In addition to the $36 million dollars in support detailed above, between 2013 and 2016, IDEA received $1,914,875 from the Dell Foundation and $7,515,000 from the Charter School Growth Fund. They have also received $4,598,715 from the Gates Foundation.
A group of internal emails stolen from IDEA in 2011 has led to accusations that IDEA fired a 20-year veteran teacher and replaced her with a much cheaper Teach For America (TFA) teacher. Torkelson also wrote that TFA persistently selects teachers who perform better than those found with IDEA’s own hiring formula. It was revealed that of 135 new hires that year, 35 would come from TFA. Torkelson said IDEA would increase its hiring of TFA members to sustain its regional corps in the face of deep state budget cuts to TFA.
The problem here is that TFA teachers are unprepared to be in a classroom. They have not studied teaching methods nor have they completed the typical one year of student teaching under the supervision of an experienced credentialed educator. They are new college graduates with five weeks of TFA summer training. In Ciedie Aech’s delightful book Why is You Always Got to Be Trippin? she reports,
“As a journalist followed the teaching year of a suddenly deployed troop of Teach-For-A-Minute miracle workers, ultimately, he found only one greenhorn to be exceptionally able. (And so many others who were both frighteningly and disastrously unprepared.)”
John Arnold, IDEA’s New Billionaire Bestie
When Enron was collapsing in 2001, John Arnold was leading their energy trading group. Somehow, when his executive pals like Former CEO Jeffrey Skilling were going to prison, Arnold received an $8 million bonus. The company’s collapse decimated the retirement savings of rank and file employees. Many of these employees like those at Portland General Electric were only vaguely aware that Enron had acquired their company.
Ironically, Arnold soon started campaigning to end pensions. David Sirota reported that Arnold joined with The Pew Charitable Trust in the effort. Sirota asserts that the “Pew-Arnold partnership began informally in 2011 and 2012 when both organizations marshaled resources to try to set the stage for retirement benefit cuts in California, Florida, Rhode Island and Kansas.” They succeeded in Florida, Rhode Island and Kansas.
Tyler O’Neil tells us that John and Laura Arnold are Democrats. He notes,
“In the 2018 cycle, the Laura & John Arnold Foundation has given $930,244, and 83 percent to Democrats and liberals. John Arnold bundled between $50,000 and $100,000 for Barack Obama in 2008. The couple were slated to host a $10,000-per-ticket Obama fundraiser featuring Michelle Obama in October 2011.
“Both Laura and John Arnold donated $23,900 to the Democratic National Committee in 2008. Laura Arnold has donated more than $50,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).”
Most recently, John has joined with Reed Hastings in a national effort to destroy public education.
A Few Assertions
Without the staggeringly large monetary gifts from Billionaires, the IDEA system of schools would not exist.
IDEA’s education program is substandard and without the publicity primed by billionaire financed media outlets, they would be disparaged if noticed at all.
IDEA’s growth harms public schools because of the significant stranded costs incurred when children leave for the new parallel privatized school system.
IDEA has become, primarily, a road to massive wealth for a few insiders.