We are proud to share this guest post authored by Tom Torkelson, CEO of Choose to Succeed, about the state of the charter school sector in San Antonio and how they are supporting high quality education by helping schools with diverse models.
How has the charter school sector in San Antonio grown since the creation of Choose to Succeed?
Choose to Succeed was formed in the early 2010s. At that time, there were only about 1,200 students in charter schools that were significantly outperforming their neighborhood schools. KIPP was the anchor school, and they offered a quality education but were growing at a rate that wasn’t really keeping up with the growth of the San Antonio public school population.
That began to change around 2012, though. First, KIPP started growing a little more aggressively. Second, Victoria Rico rallied the philanthropic community to fund and recruit charter schools with a track record to open sites in San Antonio. And she was very successful both at raising the funds, and at attracting new operators to the city—IDEA, Great Hearts, BASIS, the now-defunct Carpe Diem. In recent years, new schools and new school models founded by great entrepreneur-educators have opened. Stephanie Hall Powell opened San Antonio Prep this year, Ambika Dani got Promesa up and running, Compass Rose is staking its claim as the next high-growth CMO in Texas, and SST has quietly expanded.
The result is that, this fall, we’ll have about 40,000 students in high-performing charter schools, which is 4,000 percent growth since the start of the last decade. That’s pretty remarkable.
How has the strategy changed for promoting quality education?
As I mentioned, Carpe Diem flamed out. It was an expensive mistake and a couple million dollars from some very wealthy people went up in smoke, but that’s part of the process. You use private money to launch creative solutions to problems. The best take off and grow and serve more kids. Those that can’t bring their bright ideas to life wither on the vine. That’s how free markets work.
Imagine if Carpe Diem were run by a school district—it would likely be hobbling along today, sucking up resources, in its eighth round of “reinvention,” and meanwhile, all sorts of families would have been forced to stay there and be guinea pigs to these reinvention efforts. So I see the closure and failure of a school like this as evidence that a little bit of free market makes the schools vastly more public and greatly more productive.
Charter schools really are the most public of all schools in San Antonio right now. These schools don’t ask for proof of residency, they don’t zone you according to your address, and they don’t make you take an exam like the district magnet schools do. Families find the school they like, they sign up, and they attend. Their kids get a high quality public education. It’s America at its opportunity-providing best.
What is the growth strategy for the near future?
The strategy is to keep doing more of the same. We’ve just helped dole out a significant round of new funding to new schools that we hope take off: Akeem Brown’s Essence Prep and Anthony Gordon’s S.H. James Prep. (ed. note: Essence Prep is on track to open in 2022; the SBOE blocked S.H. James Prep’s Gen 26 application, but Choose to Succeed supports their continuing efforts.)
We’re supporting schools that want to expand and grow, and we’ve played a role in recruiting Arizona-based charter Legacy Traditional Schools to San Antonio.
What are the challenges for growing the supply of seats at high quality charter schools in San Antonio?
There are two challenges: politics and people.
In terms of people, education is very hard work and it is the most complex, and we need the very brightest minds and most motivated people to enter the education sector. But too few young college graduates are entering education. Tech companies are winning the best talent to find out how to make our devices more addictive so that they can sell more ad revenue. Investment banks are trying to eke out more profit on mergers, acquisitions, and exotic financial products.
Something as important as quality education and inspiring the next generation of leaders and citizens is far more important and much harder, but just isn’t as attractive to the top grads from the top schools—we need to change that. But fights over testing, critical race theory, what teachers can and cannot say in classrooms—it’s repelling exactly the sort of talent we should be attracting.
Second, the politics is pretty horrible. Charter schools have become a wedge issue. The unions are ascendant on the political left and they have made opposing charter schools the number one criterion for getting their endorsement. I don’t think any of the legislative delegation in San Antonio would allow me to randomly assign their child to any public school in San Antonio ISD—yet when they oppose charter schools, they deny their low-income constituents the same choice that they personally exercise when they choose private schools, choose to move to part of town where the schools are perceived as better, or choose magnet school options.
In spite of these headwinds, I am very optimistic about the future. Charters are growing as never before. The variety of schools for parents is expanding, and there is so much more to say about the diversity within our movement. If you look at charter founders, charter CEOs, charter principals, you will see the most representative and diverse coalition of educators that exists in Texas. These leaders are precisely who ought to be charting the course for the future.
ed. note: all graphs based on 2019 data
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Upon graduating from Georgetown University with a degree in economics in 1997, Tom joined Teach For America and taught fourth grade in Donna, Texas for three years, after which he successfully launched the IDEA Academy in 2000, serving as the first board president and founding principal. The IDEA Public Schools network has since grown to 53,000 students at 96 schools. In 2018, Tom was inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame. Tom is often called upon to provide expert testimony to state and local officials on issues of education policy and school choice. An avid runner and frequent Ironman triathlon competitor, Tom and his wife, Dr. Nina Lee Torkelson, live in the Rio Grande Valley with their three children, Lincoln, Liam, and Gwendolyn. After 22 years leading IDEA, Tom left his post in April of 2020 and began as CEO of Choose to Succeed in July.
Read More About Choose to Succeed and Quality Education
- “Choose to Succeed Supports High Performing Charter Schools in San Antonio,” San Antonio Charter Moms, October 22, 2020
- “Former IDEA leader wants 150,000 charter students in San Antonio by 2030,” Alia Malik, San Antonio Express-News, September 6, 2020
- “Ex-IDEA CEO Tom Torkelson Takes New Role Promoting Charters in San Antonio Region,” Emily Donaldson, San Antonio Report, July 2, 2020