Why are IDEA charters interested in New Mexico?

September 16, 2018

The “ideas” that work for our communities come from within. The recent article in The New Mexican by Searchlight (“Texas nonprofit has right ‘idea’,” Aug. 26), examines the nonprofit organization, IDEA Public Schools.

IDEA is basically a charter management organization under the cloak of a nonprofit. The description included of the IDEA kindergartners is tantamount to robots one might watch in a sci-fi film — they uniformly walk in line down the hall, self-muting any innate 5-year-old joy. Is this idea so wonderful? It may seem so, as IDEA public schools come in a pretty package. They are backed, as the article points out, by many powerful donors, including Walmart founder Sam Walton and Bill and Melinda Gates.

What effect does money have on our impression of education? Supplemental funds make it possible for those in the “educational industrial complex” to sensationalize their results, to market their ideas as superior and to pay their top leaders generous salaries and bonuses. In 2015, Tom Torkelson, IDEA’s co-founder, was pulling in $395,910 annually, according to Advance News Journal.

Powerful educational organizations are appealing. They offer training, more money, better facilities and “results,” but look closer. Texas IDEA schools were a large part of professor Edward J. Fuller’s research a few years back. His findings revealed that the IDEA schools in Texas did not accept as many at-risk or high-needs students as the traditional public schools, that while the graduation rates were good — 100 percent — 65 percent of the students who started IDEA schools in ninth grade left before graduation, and generally, that many of the results provided by the group, as Searchlight highlighted, are misleading.

Additionally, “According to the network’s student handbook, kids and teens with a history of disciplinary problems that include a criminal offense, a juvenile court adjudication, or ‘other disciplinary problems’ as defined by the Texas Board of Education can be excluded from enrollment.” Eliminating such students allows for pretty results, which ensures that the top-heavy administrators receive their $70,000 bonuses that year.

Why are IDEA public schools interested in New Mexico suddenly? Could it be the grant our Public Education Department received for opening new charters? Is New Mexico’s education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski’s quarrel with Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García paving the way for IDEA schools to replace our community schools?

Money might be able to control the narrative, but it’s everyday people who actually know how to change it. Independent, community charters make up more than 59 percent of all charter schools nationwide, and the majority of students in this country still attend traditional public schools.

These schools are run by people who know their students intimately, value cultural relevance, would not deny education based on a child’s history and who avoid a one-size-fits-all philosophy. They do not have the backing of big money and their students are not tallies on an Excel sheet. Their leaders do not make six-figure salaries. Their intentions are not to teach only the college-bound.

While I appreciate the heads-up on the groups eyeing our state, it would be refreshing to read about the dedicated educators working hard every day to provide an equitable education right here in our public schools.

Rachel Stofocik is an educational consultant in New Mexico. She has worked at federal, state and local levels in education.

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