You may remember IDEA as a free-spending charter chain in Texas. A few years ago, IDEA got negative publicity when its board of directors decided to lease a private jet at a cost of $x million per year. Then we learned that the schools had paid for box seats for the San Antonio Spurs basketball games. When the CEO departed, he received a $1 million golden parachute. These are not customary expenditures for a “public” school. These are the actions of a private corporation. Betsy DeVos dropped more than $200 million in federal funds on the IDEA chain, to enable it to expand.

William Gumbert, an independent researcher in Texas, took a deep dive into the metrics of the IDEA chain. After you read his report, you will wonder why the state of Texas and the federal government encouraged the chain to expand.

Gumbert writes:

Introduction: Federal and state elected officials, privately funded public policy organizations, and private foundations are financially supporting education reforms to undermine locally governed, community-based school districts. With promises of a “college preparatory” or “classical” education, the expansion of taxpayer-funded charter schools in local communities is the primary reform vehicle. IDEA Public Schools (“IDEA”) is the fastest growing and most prominent charter school network in Texas. National and regional promotions claim IDEA’s “Tuition-Free,” “No Excuses,” college-preparatory education model is revolutionizing education for low-income students and eliminating the opportunity gap. IDEA’s co- founder agrees by saying: “But no matter your zip code, you have access to a tuition-free public school, and I believe that will be the solution to every problem in America.”

With promotions of expert teachers and more of them, IDEA promises to prepare low-income students for success to and through college. As evidence, IDEA promotes that “100% of Graduates Have Been Accepted to their College of Choice for 15 Consecutive Years.” For education reformers, IDEA is validation that “when the adults in the system get it right, students can do remarkable things.

Unfortunately, recent findings reveal a story that is not representative of serving low-income families. IDEA’s story consists of private jets, chauffeured cars, a luxury Bed & Breakfast resort, misuse of public funds, high-priced advertising, misrepresentations, low instructional expenditures, low teacher experience, high “Student to Teacher Ratios,” and without offering career or technical training, IDEA graduates underperform in college. IDEA’s story is validation that locally governed school districts continue to provide higher quality educational attributes and better prepare students for success. IDEA’s story is also validation that TEA lacks the institutional controls to oversee charters and serves as another example of what happens when the state and private interests dictate the public education system in local communities.

Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Elected officials, education reformers, and families trusted IDEA Public Schools. Regrettably, IDEA has run amuck and “No Excuses” exist for the unyielding support of the state and private interests. It’s your schools, children, families, tax dollars, and communities!

The Promotion and Growth of IDEA – Private Foundations: After three years of classroom experience with Teach for America and at the age of 24, Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama founded the IDEA Public Schools charter network to revolutionize the education for low-income families. Since its founding, IDEA’s education model was propelled by private interests, including the Walton Family Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ewing Halsell Foundation, KLE Foundation, and the George Brackenridge Foundation. Collectively, these organizations give contingent donations to open campuses in targeted communities, implement specific curriculum, and expand enrollment. Although IDEA no longer specifies the details of its donors, prior communications reveal that IDEA was the beneficiary of over $150 million of private donations to expand in various regions of Texas.
Private Financial Support to Expand IDEA “Public” Schools

In 2008, IDEA had produced 56 high school graduates and no graduate had earned a college degree. But that did not prevent private foundations from strategically publicizing IDEA’s education model to further the charter movement. In 2009, Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America (“TFA”), named Torkelson as “100 of the most influential global citizens” in TIME magazine. Coincidentally, TFA receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which has donated over $160 million, and other private foundations supporting charter expansion. Torkelson also received the Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership in 2009, another award annually provided by TFA. In 2016, IDEA was named the top charter school system in the country by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, also funded by the Walton Family Foundation and other private foundations. In 2018, IDEA’s Torkelson and Gama were inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame.

State: At the state level, the appointed Commissioner of Education supports IDEA’s education reform model by unilaterally approving the opening of over 90 new campuses in the last decade to increase IDEA’s enrollment by 889%. To support the construction of new campuses, the state is guaranteeing the repayment of IDEA’s $988 million long-term, non-voter approved bonds through the Texas Permanent School Fund Bond Guarantee Program. The Texas legislature contributions include providing IDEA with $693 million of taxpayer funding in the current year and total taxpayer funding of $3.5 billion since 2010/11. With funding for public education limited, IDEA’s taxpayer funding is at the expense of locally governed school districts.

IDEA Public Schools: It should not be a surprise that IDEA is also its biggest advocate, thanks to an annual $7.3 million Advertising Budget. To build a perception as an education pioneer, IDEA’s full-time promotional staff is directed to: “work with public relation partners to produce positive news stories, promote school leaders as subject matter experts, and build relationships with elected officials.” IDEA also runs prime-time commercials during the Super Bowl and World Series to promote its image and maximize its exposure.

IDEA Public Schools – Historical Enrollment

Download the pdf here.