Not Everyone Keen on Charter IDEA

AISD considers partnership with charter school program

IDEA CEO Tom Torkelson with Superintendent Meria Carstarphen at a presentation at Martin Middle School
IDEA CEO Tom Torkelson with Superintendent Meria Carstarphen at a presentation at Martin Middle School (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Austin Independent School District staff met a polite but chilly community response last week when Superintendent Meria Car­star­phen and IDEA Public Schools CEO Tom Torkelson laid out their proposal to turn the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team over to the charter school group. In fact, the loudest applause was reserved for a parent concerned that the district had dropped yet another major plan on them with little warning.

At the Nov. 3 meeting at Martin Middle School, Carstarphen laid out three options for a core plan: If the board of trustees approves one as part of her annual facility recommendations on Dec. 12, she will convert East­side Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus, Allan Elementary, and potentially Martin Middle School into an in-district charter run by IDEA. "We can start two roads," Carstarphen said. On one side, her staff will keep working on the current Eastside reconstitution plan, but at the same time in "our parallel universe," they could work on the IDEA takeover as "a strong design to pick up and move into our high school." Calling the proposal their "Scenario B," she pointed to the board's instruction to her under the strategic plan to "explore and establish new delivery models to provide an enhanced portfolio of academic options." She emphasized that, under two of the three options, the redesign would not hit Eastside until 2014 at the earliest. However, all three choices would mean an IDEA presence at Allan in 2012.

IDEA comes with a mixed history. Found­ed in 2000, the nonprofit has become a significant player in education in the Rio Grande Valley. Currently it runs 20 schools in 10 communities – eight in Hidalgo County and two in Cameron County – teaching 9,500 students. And so far, its results have been impressive, with 100% of its 314 alumni entering four-year colleges. The nonprofit follows a very simple model: It takes over a school at the entry grade, then slowly fills the campus with each rising grade, eventually providing a full K-12 program. AISD trustee Cheryl Bradley, who served as a proxy at the meeting for Eastside's District 2 trustee Sam Guzmán, asked community members to "keep an open mind" about the proposal. However, before the meeting, Guz­mán told the Chronicle the board has been looking for an in-district charter that fits into the East Austin Initiative's college prep model: While the IDEA bid will still require vetting and public input, he said, "This one seems to do that." However, all three IDEA options were so poorly received at the meeting that an impromptu community "Option D" group has already formed to develop counterproposals.

While IDEA staff would focus on college readiness, Torkelson confirmed that AISD would still be responsible for most electives and extracurricular activities. Within such a narrow mission, AISD board Vice President Vince Torres said he will be looking closely at whether what IDEA has achieved in the Valley can be scaled up and replicated in Austin. He said, "I always have concerns about models that have worked in other parts of Texas, or really any parts of the U.S., and that had a different market to compete against."

The move would be a major step for IDEA, which so far has no presence in Cen­tral Texas. Chief Growth Officer Matt Ran­dazzo told the Statesman that the charter group wanted at least 10,000 students in its feeder or it would refuse to sign a noncompete contact, adding, "We're collaborators with the district or we end up here as competition." Torres said that the possibility of IDEA moving into the district as a partner, only to become a rival, was "a big concern to me" and that he would like more details on how to ensure that did not happen.

While there was great concern at the Nov. 3 meeting that the options were being rolled out so close to the vote, Torres said he was not surprised that IDEA's name was being bandied about, noting that there are only "a handful" of charter groups with enough of a track record to even consider a project of this size. Such talk raises questions about how Austin-based South­west Key Programs will respond to the proposal. So far that charter group has not issued a formal statement – surprising, because Southwest Key has made repeated requests to AISD that it be allowed to lease the Eastside campus and integrate it into its own college prep academy.

None of this is sitting well with Educa­tion Austin, the employees' union which had been working with AISD on being an active partner on an in-district charter. Ever since IDEA had been mentioned, teaching staff at the campuses in question have been told they might have to reapply for their jobs, while IDEA staff in the Valley schools have reportedly been told there could be positions opening up in Austin. And there's a deeper concern: IDEA has faced repeated allegations that it is propped up by Teach for America – i.e., new teachers on short-term assignments – a cut-rate solution to staffing levels. Education Austin co-President Ken Zarifis was concerned about this but also worried that the charter schools elevate results by cherry-picking the best students. He said IDEA "may be successful, but they're able to control their success." As for Randazzo's statements about becoming rivals to the district, he said, "It's funny that they say that they want to be collaborative, but it sounds to me like they've got a gun to the head of AISD."

The Three Big IDEAs for the Eastside In-District Charter Vertical Team

Allan Elementary Martin Middle Eastside Memorial
Scenario A K-8* 9-12
Scenario B PK-5* 6-8 9-12
Scenario C PK-5 6-12

Under each plan, IDEA Public Schools would initially cohabit on campuses with the existing schools, taking over the lower grades and steadily expanding to take over the entire campus. * Under Scenarios A and B, admission to Allan would be by lottery.

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IDEA Public Schools, Austin ISD, AISD, Meria Carstarphen

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