There’s a Texas-spawned education revolution known as IDEA Public Charter Schools that’s spreading to multiple states, yet it remains mostly unnoticed. Meantime, eyeballs keep getting redirected to a controversial group of New York City charter schools known as Success Academy schools.
It’s time we corrected our gazes and gave attention where it’s due.
How many people, including education insiders, know that IDEA is opening new schools in Cincinnati? Tampa Bay?
How many know that IDEA convinced Texas football rivals Odessa and Midland to allow its charters to open in both places. Plus, Midland agreed to have IDEA take over its long-failing Travis Elementary?
How many know that IDEA is expanding rapidly and on track to its goal of enrolling 100,000 students?
Hardly any. Yet education insiders in New York and elsewhere could tell you plenty about Success Academy schools and their founder, the outspoken Eva Moskowitz. Success is the charter network everyone either loves or hates, a network that, at least on the surface, appears to turn thousands of low-income, minority students into scholars that outscore kids in upscale suburban districts.
The push for an eyeball redirect comes courtesy of Robert Pondiscio’s new book, “How the Other Half Learns,” which documents what many have known or suspected for years: Success truly does a spectacular job educating its students, but its test scores warrant an asterisk because of the way it does business.
Meantime, IDEA succeeds in ways that Success can’t touch. Whereas Success doesn’t admit new students after fourth grade, enabling them to hermetically seal their schools from troubled kids who arrive later to must public schools, IDEA takes new students through 11th grade.
Whereas Success manipulates its lottery-chosen class to not-so-subtly scare less-brave parents into dropping out, IDEA doesn’t do anything to frighten away less committed parents who win seats.
“We try to make our ‘Welcome to IDEA night’ a very welcoming, positive environment,” said Samuel Goessling, chief advancement officer for IDEA.
The result: 90% of the parents who land a seat at an IDEA school end up enrolling their children. At Success Academy schools, Pondiscio estimates that only about half the parents selected in the lottery end up enrolling their children. (No official numbers are available.)
Anyone who thinks that IDEA takes in less challenging students has never visited the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, one of the poorest places in the entire country and the birthplace (and headquarters) for the network.
Anyone who thinks IDEA succeeds by keeping its size easily manageable is not familiar with its breakneck expansion. Today, it serves 52,000 students in 95 schools. By the year 2020, it will serve 102,000 students in 202 schools.
Few can match the lofty test scores at Success. But IDEA has arguably excelled using a better measuring stick: college graduates. Among all its alumni who are six years out of high school (when college success is measured), 45% earned a bachelor’s degree, a rate that’s three times higher than expected, considering the demographics of their students.
That comes as little surprise given that IDEA’s founders, Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gamma, were Teach for America recruits who decided to launch a charter school with a single goal: everyone goes to college. In that part of the country, where most of the students were Hispanic, coming from homes where only Spanish was spoken, going to college was mostly an abstract idea.
Success just sent its second graduating class to college; it will be years before we know anything about the degree-earning rate for its alumni.
Don’t get me wrong here. I get the press appeal of Success Academy schools. I understand how the media laps up the long-running war between Moskowitz and New York’s charter-skeptic mayor.
I believe that Success does really important work. Why shouldn’t low-income families have such an option? If families served by these schools were wealthier, they would move to the suburbs or enroll their children in private schools — the form of “choice” routinely exercised by better-off parents.
But those of us who care about using innovative charter-school models to improve education for all kids need to keep our eyes on the ball. The real action is in Texas. And Louisiana, and Florida, and Ohio. And possibly coming to a location near you.
Whitmire’s latest book is “The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America.”