IDEA Public Schools
|Type||Non-profit organization that runs charter schools|
|Focus||Preparing students from underserved communities for success in college and in citizenship.|
Tom Torkelson, Founder and CEOJoAnn Gama, President and Superintendent
IDEA Public Schools, Inc is a not‐for‐profit Texas corporation formed in June 2000 that operates charter schools and does business as Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement (“IDEA”) Public Schools. The company is headquartered in Weslaco, Texas. In 2015 it served about 19,000 students in 36 schools, about 85% of whom were economically disadvantaged.
While the system has received praise from several organizations, it has also been met with criticism concerning its student selection process and data reporting.
IDEA Public Schools, Inc. was founded by Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama, former Teach For America corps members, as a not‐for‐profit Texas corporation headquartered in Weslaco. Its mission was to create charter schools to serve impoverished students, starting in Donna, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, where the two were corps members. Tracy Epp was a Teach for America colleague who helped them write the charter, joined the board of IDEA, and became the first principal of the first IDEA high school in 2003 and in 2008 became IDEA's Chief Academic Officer.
In 2011 the Austin school district contracted with IDEA to take over Allan Elementary, a school with a 95% low-income student population, and run it as an in-district public charter school starting with the 2012 school year. However many parents and an offshoot of the Occupy Austin protest group opposed the plan, claiming that the school was being used as an experiment to create education reform in the city. Many parents withdrew their children from the school, and IDEA had to recruit from outside the neighborhood and even outside of East Austin to get students. The school district cancelled the contract in 2012, and IDEA opened a new school in its own IDEA school district and on its own land about nine miles south of the Allen. About 80% of the students elected to go to the IDEA school starting in 2013, leaving Allan Elementary empty and unused and taking about $60 million over the subsequent seven years out of the Austin school district.
In 2012 IDEA opened its first school in San Antonio when former basketball player David Robinson invited IDEA to take over Carver Academy, a private elementary school he had started in 2001; in the next three years IDEA opened five more schools there.
As of 2015 it served about 19,000 students in 36 schools, about 85% of whom were economically disadvantaged.
In 2016 IDEA was in advanced negotiations to establish schools in El Paso and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and received a $16M donation to expand its operations in Austin from three schools to 26 schools.
According to the Houston Association of Realtors (HAR) and based on 2015 data, 24.5% of teachers were currently beginning their first year of teaching at IDEA, 60% had about 1 to 5 years of experience while 9.8% had 6 to 10 years of teaching experience. Around 5% of teachers had 11 to 20 years of experience while less than 1 percent had over 20 years of experience. In terms of ethnicity, the teacher population was 1.6% Asian/Pacific Islander, 2.9% African American, 77.4% Hispanic, 17.6% White and 0.3% were of two or more races. IDEA officials said in 2016 that about 12% of their teachers were Teach for America corps members.
Individual IDEA schools usually launch on their own land with only three or four grades: kindergarten, first, and second grades in an "Academy" (as IDEA calls their primary schools), and a sixth grade to seed a "College Preparatory" school, which combines middle school and high school. It fills in the rest of the grades over the next six or seven years. IDEA has offered preschool programs.
As of 2016 around 95% of IDEA students were Hispanic, around 85% were economically disadvantaged, for around 33% English was a second language, and 5% of IDEA's students had special education needs.
Each campus requires students to wear a polo shirt with the IDEA logo and campus name and khaki or navy pants. Students must keep their hair neat; for young men no facial hair is allowed and their hair must be short, and young women can wear only light makeup.
IDEA schools hold a "College Signing Day" event each year to celebrate academic achievement, at which seniors announce the college to which they have been accepted. In 2016 IDEA said that 62% of graduates were the first people in their family to attend college.
Admission is initially carried out by lottery, but students who have a juvenile record or a history of disciplinary problems may be excluded.
Most of the curriculum for kindergarten through second grade is scripted. In all levels students in a given class are grouped be skill level and are regularly assessed, and group assignments changed accordingly. Groups move through defined sequences of lessons. All classes are taught in English.
Students cannot advance to sixth grade without passing the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam in 5th grade, and they cannot advance to 9th grade without passing the STAAR exam. Students get three tries and tutoring, and if they still fail, they are held back. About 15% of students in an IDEA school in eighth grade are no longer there by eleventh grade.
Students take courses to learn the skills needed to take Advanced Placement courses beginning in sixth grade and in ninth grade they take their first AP course. They are scheduled to take eleven AP courses.
According to IDEA's student handbook as of 2015, students are eligible to graduate “only if the student successfully completes the curriculum requirements identified by the SBOE (State Board of Education), has been accepted into a 4 year college or university, has completed a minimum of 125 hours of community service, and has performed satisfactorily on required end of course assessment instruments.”:18–19 As of 2016, about 65% of students who enter 9th grade to do not graduate at an IDEA school.
In its 2015 audited financial statement IDEA reported having about $445M in assets (cash, incoming grants, land, buildings, etc); in 2014 it had about $356M. It reported about $213M of income in 2015, with about $12M coming from cities or towns, about $164M from state funding, and about $37M from the federal government, with about $13M of that for child nutrition; its expenses were about $194M.
Like many charter schools, IDEA fueled growth by selling bonds which were treated as risky by the bond markets; in 2013 it raised $63M by selling bonds rated BBB by Standard & Poor’s and priced to yield 4.5 percent, or about 1.5 percentage points more than the standard rate.
In 2010 The Department of Education, under its Investing in Innovation program, awarded IDEA and the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District a $5M grant to train teachers. IDEA raised an additional $3M in private donations to fund the teacher training center; hiring teachers from the Rio Grande Valley was a goal for both school systems but people who had already been educated there were under-prepared.
In 2012 the company received a Race to the Top grant for $29.2M from the United States Department of Education. It was one of sixteen winners chosen from the original pool of 372 applicants; two other charter schools were among the recipients. In 2012 it also received a Department of Education grant of $11.5M to be paid over the next seven years.
In 2013 it had received significant funding from Choose to Succeed, a coalition of San Antonio-based foundations seeking to bring more charter schools to their city.
In May 2016 IDEA received a $16M donation from the KLE Foundation, a local non-profit, to expand in Austin.
In 2016 IDEA employed 876 teachers and the average teacher salary was $44,572 (Statewide: $50,715); salaries ranged from a beginner's salary of $38,152 (Statewide: $44,540) to someone with 20+ years experience making $60,175 (Statewide: $59,787).
In 2011, the CEO Tom Torkelson, received a base pay rate of $238,812 and with 9,505 students in IDEA schools, had a salary-to-student ratio of $25.12l in the same year the superintendent of the Dallas ISD was responsible for 157,575 students and had a salary of $211,216 for a ratio of $1.34. In 2012, his base salary was $299,000 and in 2013 his total compensation reportable to the IRS was $373,307.
In 2016 the U.S. News & World Report High School Rankings listed seven IDEA college preparatory schools, three of which reported graduate rates ranging from 98 to 100% and four of which had no rates listed. College readiness percentages ranged from 54% to 86% with no data available for one. Their Texas state rankings ranged from 15th to 67th with no data on one of them. Six of the schools received gold medal rankings.
The Washington Post included seven of IDEA's eligible College Preparatory schools in its 2016 ranking of America's Most Challenging High Schools. IDEA Mission ranked 11 in the nation and 4 in Texas and IDEA Frontier ranked 15 in America and 5 in Texas. Other campuses included San Benito, Quest, San Juan, Alamo, and Donna. Each school also made the list the year prior. Jay Mathews commented on the ranking in the Post: "Even more startling is the appearance of six public charter high schools in some of the poorest parts of Texas among the top 50 schools on our list, which I have produced for The Post (and previously for Newsweek) for 18 years. Those six schools, and a seventh that ranks No. 106, are all part of the Idea (sic) Public Schools charter network."
In the 2014 U.S. News & World Report high school rankings, there were 3 IDEA schools listed; the IDEA college prep school in Donna ranked 30 out of all public high schools in the United States and 5th in the state of Texas.
Awards and recognition
In 2015 the US Department of Education included IDEA as one of its "Bright Spots" in Latino education, as part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
In 2015 Children at Risk, a children's advocacy group in Houston, published a report evaluating data on charter schools in Texas that concluded: "Some charters, including YES Prep, KIPP, Idea Public Schools, Texas Preparatory Network, and Uplift Education are taking disadvantaged students to new heights of academic success, achieving what nobody thought possible. These high performing charters excel in the education of Texas children, and do so in spite of serving a greater percentage of economically-disadvantaged children than the state average."
Criticism and controversy
On May 25, 2011, over 40 sensitive emails were leaked to local businesses and education leaders which mentioned the lack of potential that teachers had to be promoted into a higher position, such as a leadership role. The leaked emails were also sent to state charter officials and other IDEA staff which contained talks about expansion to other cities such as San Antonio and Austin, a bias towards Teach For America corps members and criticism involving an administrator in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district. In regards to preference for Teach For America members, Tom Torkelson said that he would place a "20 year veteran" if he or she could produce "expected student success results." Speaking about the administrator incident, Torkelson said that he was "frustrated" and used "some very choice words" at the moment, but has mentioned that the partnership with PSJA has been "going better than ever." 
The district has been criticized for selecting students based on academic performance. Dr. Ed Fuller, a professor at Pennsylvania State University has said that IDEA schools do not enroll "underserved" students. Antonio Limon, a San Benito school Superintendent, criticized the district for "cherry picking" its students. Limon claimed that IDEA picked higher performing students when holding lotteries for admission. Torkelson has denied these claims, stating that schools host "transparent, public lotteries." Limon, however, said that even though lotteries are hosted, the district keeps the "best" students, while taking out the lower performing ones.
AlterNet, a progressive news outlet and Independent Media Institute project, criticized IDEA for eliminating "critical thinking" in the district's curriculum, placing board members from banking organizations to generate profit for the school and taking taxpayer money to create expansion. The source has commented that IDEA board members belong to organizations such as JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and the International Bank of Commerce. IDEA's organization status was also criticized for taking "public subsidies" to continue operating.
- Guidestar listing Page accessed August 14, 2016
- ProPublica listing Page accessed August 14, 2016
- IDEA Public Schools, audited by Padgett Stratemann. IDEA Public Schools, Inc. Financial and Compliance Report June 30, 2015 and 2014
- "IDEA Public Schools: Student/Staff Statistics". Houston Association of Realtors. Archived from the original on June 5, 2016. Retrieved June 4, 2016.
- Mareesa Nicosia (May 3, 2016). "Big IDEAS: High-Achieving South Texas Charter Network Reveals National Expansion Plan". The 74.
- Staff, Art/Sci, Vol 5(1) Fall 2008 Tracy Epp Devotes Her Career to Educational Justice
- Morgan Smith and Sarah Butrymowicz, The Hechinger Report in The Texas Tribune. Dec. 3, 2010 Charter and Public Schools Align in the Valley
- Richard Whittaker (October 4, 2013). "What's Next for Allan Elementary?". The Austin Chronicle.
- Patrick Michels (Dec 28, 2012). "The Cautionary Tale of Austin ISD’s Partnership with IDEA Charters". The Texas Observer.
- Kate McGee (June 6, 2013). "AISD Cancels Contract With IDEA Charter School". KUT.
- "IDEA Public Schools reports success amid questions around data reporting". Education Dive.
- Kathleen Petty for San Antonio Magazine. August 2015 Charter Choice: Charter School Growth in San Antonio
- State of Texas. February 2, 2015 IDEA Charter renewal application and grant
- Lindsey Anderson (May 4, 2016). "IDEA charter schools coming to El Paso". El Paso Times.
- Charles Lussier (April 14, 2016). "Baton Rouge charter organization to build five schools, aims to 'transform' educational possibilities". The Advocate.
- Melissa B. Taboada for the Austin American-Statesman May 16, 2016 IDEA charter launches aggressive expansion plans with $16 million gift
- Mathews, Jay. "That’s the Idea: Some schools serving low-income students believe in a challenge". The Washington Post.
- Staff. Texas Tribune. Texas Public Schools Explorer Idea Public Schools Page accessed June 5, 2016
- IDEA Student handbook Archived June 5, 2016. Originally linked from Idea Resources page.
- David Mildenberg for Bloomberg News. October 3, 2013 Texas Fund’s First Charter-School Pledges Buoy Debt: Muni Credit
- U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) Awards
- IDEA and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District i3 Funding Proposal
- "Taking a Charter Network to Scale: IDEA Public Schools". The Huffington Post.
- Smith, Morgan. "Two Texas Charter Schools Win Race to the Top Grants". The Texas Tribune.
- Patriciao Guillermo for The Edinburg Politics Blog. May 2012 Congressman Hinojosa announces $11.5 million grant for IDEA Public Schools
- Morgan Smith for The New York Times. Nov. 7, 2013 Debating New Charter Schools, Their Policies and Their Effects
- "Interactive: How Much Does Your Superintendent Make?". The Texas Tribune.
- "New salary list shows which supers took more tax dollars to the bank". The Monitor.
- U.S. News & World Report High School Rankings IDEA Public Schools. Based on 2013-2014 data. Page archived April 26, 2016
- "IDEA Public Schools rank as most challenging in the nation". The Monitor.
- U.S. News & World Report High School Rankings DEA Academy and College Preparatory School at Donna Page archived December 1, 2014
- "Bright Spots in Hispanic Education Fulfilling America's Future". United States Department of Education.
- Robert Sanborn et al for Children at Risk. April, 2015 The Status of Charter Schools in Texas: Dispelling the Myths and Analyzing the Realities
- "IDEA, Success Academy, YES Prep Named Finalists for 2016 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools". The Broad Foundation.
- "Leaked IDEA Public Schools emails reveal private conversations". The Monitor.
- "Are IDEA Charter Schools a Good Idea for Austin?". Fuller Look Blog.
- "Why is a 43% Failure Rate in College Considered College-Prep?". Fuller Look Blog.
- "Charter school denies they are cherry picking students". Valley Morning Star.
- "The Death of Critical Thinking in Texas Public Schools". AlterNet.