The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One of biggest, best charter networks stumbles but still grows

IDEA has lost its two founders, who began in remote South Texas in 2000

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No single innovation in American public education in the 21st century has been as effective as charter schools in raising achievement for children from low-income families.

Charters are independently run public schools that use tax dollars. Most are no better academically than regular public schools. But a 2013 Stanford University report showed that 25 percent of charters were significantly better in reading achievement and 29 percent were significantly better in math achievement than neighboring regular public schools serving the same kinds of students.

The rise of the IDEA public charter system in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas is one of the clearest, yet least known, indicators of how good such schools can be for impoverished children. The nation’s largest charter network, KIPP, became famous in part because its first two schools were born in media-rich Houston and New York City. IDEA has produced in some ways even better results, but few U.S. educators or public officials have noticed because IDEA began in small border towns such as Donna (population 16,409) and Weslaco (40,464).

In 2020, KIPP had 242 schools with more than 100,000 students. That same year, IDEA had 120 schools and a plan to have 173 schools with 100,000 students by 2024. The annual IDEA operating budget had gone from $28 million in 2005 to nearly $1 billion recently. Then IDEA had the greatest leadership crisis of its history (which still didn’t get much media attention).

IDEA was founded in 2000 by two 25-year-old elementary school teachers, JoAnn Gama and Tom Torkelson. They had combined their most successful classroom techniques with ideas borrowed from KIPP, such as longer school days and accelerated lessons for all. By 2020, 11 IDEA campuses were among the top 25 high schools in the country measured by participation in college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, according to my annual Challenge Index rankings.

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Gama and Torkelson’s motto, “Get it done and figure it out later,” had gotten them far, but a public relations mishap led to both founders departing in the last two years.

Headquartered in a hard-to-reach region of South Texas, IDEA had been leasing an airplane to reach its campuses across Texas and out of state. IDEA also had a box at the AT&T Center, home of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, and an apartment in that city for staffers spending the night there. (Spurs legend David Robinson is a longtime IDEA supporter.) This led teachers union and news media critics to say that IDEA was spending money on luxuries rather than learning. IDEA’s board and Torkelson parted ways in 2020. Gama left last May.

The team leading IDEA today includes acting chief executive officer Al Lopez, a former finance executive with Dell and IBM who joined the IDEA board in 2015, and chief schools officer Lisa T. Garza, an experienced public schools administrator hired by IDEA in 2010. They said the network continues to emphasize the same high standards, although school growth has slowed.

They have added new staff to help schools contend with the pandemic. There are now 137 IDEA schools with 72,000 students, including recently opened schools in Florida and Louisiana. There will be IDEA schools in Cincinnati this coming fall and in Arkansas in fall 2024, Lopez and Garza said. Supported by state tax dollars, the network has also been successful raising money from philanthropists and on the bond market, where it has an A-minus rating.

School quality at IDEA is maintained by coaches who react quickly to any decline in student-teacher interaction. All high school students are required to take AP or IB courses and exams. According to Garza, 100 percent of graduating seniors have been accepted to college in the last 15 years. This past fall 99 percent showed up. Seventy-four percent of them are the first in their family to attend college.

IDEA has long focused its staff recruiting on Texas. Seventy-eight percent of IDEA teachers are, like Lopez and Garza, Hispanic. An exception is the network’s new chief communications officer, Candice Burns, a former Obama administration official with long experience in Washington, D.C.’s Friendship public charter network.

Lopez said he was drawn to IDEA when he retired as a corporate executive in 2010 and began volunteering with his wife helping schools in Austin, where they live. They were struck by the low expectations for students in poorer parts of the Austin school district compared with the schools their own children had attended.

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Garza said that when she was hired, after two decades working in regular public schools in the Rio Grande Valley, she was impressed by IDEA’s focus on raising achievement. Students in middle schools were already being prepared for AP and IB classes in high school. IDEA recruited many local administrators who were frustrated by the politics of regular districts. “People who had been assistant principals for many years were saying they were not going to have opportunities to become principals because they didn’t know the right people,” Garza said.

Lopez said that IDEA teachers and administrators have found the pandemic difficult to deal with but that they benefit from the network’s techniques for raising achievement. Since IDEA’s beginning, its teachers have concentrated on helping students who were two or three years behind.

How the remarkably successful if little-known charter network does in the post-pandemic era will be interesting, even if most of us probably won’t pay much attention.