By G. Romero Wendorf
The Advance News Journal published a story last month about IDEA Public Schools in which we asked the question: do charter schools benefit public education or harm it?
The debate over that very question is heated, both locally and nationally. In fact, look for it to surface during this presidential campaign
For example, GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush is a big charter school advocate. When he became governor of Florida in 1999, the state had 30 charter schools. When he left in 2007, thanks in large support to his push for charter-school expansion during his two terms in office, that number had exploded to more than 300. Today, charter schools in Florida number more than 600. In fact, in 2003, Jeb Bush signed a law that eliminated the cap on the number of charters, much the same way some Texas politicians are trying to do today. (Testing Time: Jeb Bush’s educational experiment; The New Yorker; Jan. 26, 2015).
Like-minded, in Texas, the current lieutenant governor, Daniel Patrick, tried several times during his two terms as state senator to completely eliminate the cap on charter schools. But he couldn’t quite get the votes he needed.
Across the U.S. charter schools have approximately 2.7 million students enrolled in the publicly-funded institutes ( Some are forprofit charters, and others are nonprofit. In Florida, one of the charter school operators with which Jeb Bush had close ties – Academica –enjoys well over $150 million in annual revenue with nearly 100 charter schools under its sway.
Hillary Clinton is also on record as being a supporter of charter schools as long as they are performing. (The American Federation of Teachers questionnaire to presidential candidates; 2015).
Valley charters
In the Rio Grande Valley, IDEA Public Schools is king of the charters, albeit non-profit. With approximately 20,000 students, and a budget of a quarter-ofa- billion dollars, which rivals McAllen ISD, IDEA has come a long way since its founding days in 2000, approximately five years after two Teach for America teachers, Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama, landed at Donna ISD.
After approximately three years teaching in Donna, Torkelson and Gama created an after-school program in 1998 aimed at improving grades/test scores for at-risk kids.
Two years later, with the charter-school concept just starting to catch hold, Torkelson applied for and was granted state permission to operate his own charter school, which he named IDEA, an acronym for “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement.”
Gama became his first employee, he says.
According to the IDEA website, “It was created as a way to help combat some of the major educational deficiencies in (area) students, focusing the program on student achievement and college readiness.”
Today, IDEA has grown to incorporate more than 20,000 students in 44 schools across Texas, which includes school campuses in San Antonio, Austin and the RGV
But in the company of success, criticism is always lurking. And, maybe not so surprising, a lot of the criticism has to do with money. The main slam against non-profitcharters: their superintendents are paid more than their counterparts at public schools even though both are funded with taxpayer dollars.
At IDEA, for example, Tom Torkelson earns an annual salary of $325,910 and last year collected another approximate $70,000 as a performance bonus. That’s a total of $395,910. (Four years ago his base pay was $248,850). Add to that his perks: a country club membership (McAllen); a million-dollar life insurance policy (IDEA pays the premium); health insurance for him and his dependents (IDEA pays the premium); and a monthly car allowance of $800, and it all adds up to some serious change.
His colleague at IDEA, JoAnn Gama, is the charter school’s superintendent. According to the salaries posted at the TEA (Texas Education Agency) website, her annual salary is $226,429
Torkelson and Gama don’t claim status as co-superintendents. Torkelson is the CEO, and Gama is the superintendent. But their critics have asked the question: what’s the difference? (Torkelson explains the difference in the following interview).
In fact, prior to just a few years ago, Torkelson was IDEA’s official superintendent, and his salary was near the top of the TEA’s list of state superintendents. Now, as CEO, his name no longer appears on the state list.
But if you add Torkelson’s salary and approximate performance bonus together with Gama’s base salary, the approximate combined sum equals: $622,000. And it’s not just the two of them alone running IDEA. As do the public schools, they have their fair share of assistant superintendents (“chiefs” in IDEA parlance).
Compare that to what the lone superintendent makes at McAllen ISD – $247,319 – and one can see why some charter schools are being criticized for being top heavy. GOOGLE “Charter schools spend more on administration,” and you’ll find many stories about that very topic from various states across the entire U.S.
In Texas, according to a story published last year by The Dallas Morning News, the salaries work out to $79.74 per student for charter superintendents (more for CEOs, it would appear) vs. $6.39 per student for public school superintendents.
The story was based on a report released at the time by the vice chairman of the State Board of Education, Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant
In The Dallas Morning News story, Ratliff was quoted as saying:
“I find it ironic that charter schools were supposed to bring free market principals into the education marketplace, but they are obviously paying way above free market rates for their superintendents (not to mention CEOs.) I would also like to point out that these entities are supposed to be non-profit organizations, but at these salary levels, some people are clearly doing quite well.”
To get all of this sorted out, The Advance News sat down recently with IDEA’s Tom Torkelson for a 22-minute interview.
To help simplify and clarify the questions and answers, they are presented here in paraphrased fashion, but truly and factually represent the exact quotes.
When and why did you change your title from superintendent to CEO?
Torkelson: I did that about a year ago. And what precipitated that was one of the best things I did when I founded IDEA was to hire JoAnn Gama as our first employee. I would say that she is one of the most respected women in education in this country, and certainly one of the most respected female Hispanics in education. So, really, I wanted to elevate her to the position of superintendent to recognize the huge impact she has had on this organization.
I think this (CEO business) has less to do about changing my title and instead, giving JoAnn the recognition she really deserves.
She and I really have an innovative way in which we lead this organization, and it’s part of why we’ve been so successful.
People always want to be with the president, or the superintendent or the CEO. So this is just a way for the two of us to seize as many opportunities as possible
JoAnn might be at a Rose Garden Ceremony at the White House, and if there’s something at the school that needs attention, I can deal with that, or vice versa. Maybe there’s an issue that needs to be dealt with in San Antonio, and I need to be in Los Angeles with some funder or something. I think it’s been a very good move for the organization
When people look at your base salary and your performance bonus and your country club membership and your million-dollar life insurance policy, and they say, that’s too much money. What do you say to that in response?
Torkelson: I think three things. One, and this was not in your reporting (Aug. 12, 2015 story), not one penny of my salary comes from public dollars. So all of my salary is covered by private or philanthropic funding. So we’re not diverting any public dollars from the classroom to my compensation.
Secondly, and we do this with most of our positions, we have an outside firm that compares us to similar organizations, kind of on a national and Texas scale, and we ensure that we’re always between the median and the 75th percentile. And so I feel that we’re very thoughtful about how we approach all of our salaries.
I will say that I have nothing to do with my own salary. I have my own board of directors. They’re the ones who set my salary and that sort of thing.
I’m very fortunate. I have a position that I would do for free. I would almost pay someone to let me do this job, I’m having so much fun.
Was my source right who said that out of the $100,000 performance bonus last year, you made about $70,000?
Torkelson: Yeah, that’s about right.
And the performance bonus is based on a set of metrics, right?
Torkelson: The metrics are, did we meet our fundraising goal? Did we hit our college acceptance goals? Did we hit our academic performance goals? Did we hit our bottom line financial goals? Did we hit our growth and expansion goals?
When people say that charter schools cherry pick their students, or when the bad apple, so to speak, the pro blem child, hits IDEA’s classroom, you say, hit the road, especially if it’s right before the standardized test, what do you say to that?
Torkelson: It’s just not true. Completely untrue. If you look at our expulsion rate, and it’s available online, it’s been at approximately one percent, which is pretty much the standard across the state
And in terms of the cherry picking, we had more than 32,000 kids apply last year. And we have a lottery that’s completely blind. Students basically give us their name and address. We have a random-number generator that spits out all the students who are accepted. The kids who aren’t accepted are put on a waiting list in the order their name appears
But not just that, when we do our door-to-door recruitment, we specifically are going into neighborhoods that are the most impoverished, have some of the biggest challenges, because we want to be that no-tuition private school for families that can’t afford it. That’s a key part of our mission
Typically, what percent of kids who start the school year are there when it ends?
Torkelson: I will tell you that from the first day of school last year, to the last day of school last year, we lost about five percent of our students. Of that approximately one percent were asked to leave or told to leave. Other kids move to another district. For some parents, it’s too hard. For others, it’s too easy. Part of our deal with school choice is that they have a choice to come, but they also have a choice to leave as well
That’s an important number to follow because some charter schools will say that they’ve only had a tiny expulsion rate, but they’ve had 40 percent of their kids leave over the course of the year. So something is going on there.
Why shouldn’t charter schools be forced to hold public school board elections? As it is now, your board is appointed, and then new board members who fill the slots of seats set to expire are voted in by the board. Since we’re dealing with public tax dollars, shouldn’t the public have a vote with regard to the school boards that govern the charter schools?
Torkelson: The question I ask myself is, why are school boards elected? School boards are elected so there is public accountability. I would say that when it comes to public accountability, no one is more accountable than a public charter school. For two reasons.
One, if we don’t perform well, every five years, the state has an opportunity to not renew our charter. And we have no appeals process.
And secondly, if we’re doing something wrong, the state has the power to end or terminate our charter and close us down. So that is a much more accountable framework than any school system deals with in relation tothe state education agency
The second piece in terms of the ultimate accountability is that parents really do vote with their feet. School districts just kind of see who shows up the first day. We have nobody who shows up the first day if we’re not out there recruiting the kids, talking to parents about what our vision is for the future. So I feel like that double accountability is what the public should feel good about.
But school boards, publicly elected, do serve some purpose. They, too, are answerable to the public.
Torkelson: If someone can make an argument to me that the way school boards are run right now, the way elections are run right now, leads to higher student achievement, I’d say, okay, well, let’s look at that. But I think, particularly in the Valley, you’d be hard pressed to make that argument.
How many board members do you have now, and how are they appointed?
Torkelson: Well, depending on how you count, we have 23 or 24 members on our board. We have about half a dozen on our San Antonio regional board, and about the same number on our Austin regional board. Our governing board, I think, has 13 members. I might be off one or two.
New members are elected by current members. It’s a selfperpetuating board. Much like a museum or a foundation might be. They serve three-year terms, and they can serve three of those. Presumably, they can get off and take a break if they like, and then get back on.
What’s the biggest myth you hear about charter schools that drives you crazy?
Torkelson: One of the things that we’re trying to show is that if the adults in the system get it right, we really can do a much better job of getting our students into great colleges and graduating from great colleges.
And what bothers me when they start complaining that IDEA does this or does that, or we cherry pick students, it upsets me because that’s just an excuse for people to not have to say if IDEA is figuring it out, we should be figuring it out too. Let’s visit them; let’s replicate what they’re doing; let’s try to get the same success for us. So I just feel like that becomes a block for people to not raise their game.
And ultimately, we had 32,000 kids apply and only a few thousand of them got in. Those tens of thousands of kids who did not get in, I want them to have a great education, and I don’t care if it’s at McAllen ISD or PSJA ISD or IDEA Public Schools. As a region, we have to realize that our competition is not the school district down the street. All of our kids in the Valley have to compete against all the best talent nationally when it comes to getting into the top schools. And in this global economy,we’re competing against the best students in many other countries.
My vision is, we have to get past these petty, parochial arguments, and we have to say, what do we have to do as a region, as a state to lift the level of performance for all of our kids.
And when parents look at which school district to send their kids, what’s the one thing they should look at?
Torkelson: Ask every school, what percentage of your kids are going to college; what percentage are graduating once they’re in college; and what is their GPA?


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