IDEA wins big federal grant as district contract at risk
The charter school network at the center of a tense dispute with some Austin school board members won a highly coveted federal grant aimed at fostering education innovation.
The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday awarded IDEA Public Schools $29 million over four years to be used at its schools in the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio. The Race to the Top District competition drew 372 school district applicants from across the country that were seeking a piece of the $400 million pot of grant money.
IDEA was one of 16 winners along with Harmony Public Schools, another Texas-based charter school system. Harmony, which operates five
schools in Austin and 38 across the state, was awarded about $30 million.
The national announcement by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan comes less than a week before the Austin Independent School District board of trustees is to decide whether to continue the contract for IDEA Allan, a partnership at the former Allan Elementary School in East Austin.
Tom Torkelson, founder and chief executive officer of IDEA Public Schools, said during a conference call that the award is another validation of the charter school system’s approach and casts doubt on the judgment of the Austin school trustees who are threatening to end the partnership in its infancy.
“I would hate to see the board go down as the most knee-jerk reactionary board in the nation,” Torkelson said in a conference call after the announcement.
School Trustee Jayme Mathias questioned whether the grant award was based on “merit or because of friends they’ve built in the Department of Education.” The head of IDEA Allan previously worked for the department, he said.
“IDEA’s numbers are not good. If you’re going to call yourself college prep, your numbers should justify that,” said Mathias, who added that IDEA has used its partnership with Austin to burnish its image.
Mathias was one of three new trustees elected in November who openly opposed contracting with IDEA. He said it was the previous board that made a kneejerk decision to bring in a charter school against the wishes of the community.
Torkelson said IDEA’s internal tracking shows that 90 percent of its graduates are in college or have graduated from college while publicly reported data show 85 percent of IDEA students have done so.
He added that it was imprudent for a public official to suggest that Education Department officials acted improperly because the grant applications were evaluated and scored by independent peer reviewers.
Austin school board members on Monday will bring up for review the district’s contract with IDEA Public Schools. The board could vote to confine the charter school to Allan Elementary for one more year, instead of allowing IDEA to continue on its current growth plan by expanding into Eastside Memorial High next year.
IDEA started at Allan Elementary in August, after months of protests and intense debate over the district’s decision to partner with the charter operator. The school serves 544 students in kindergarten through second grades and in sixth grade.
The district’s agreement with IDEA states that if officials from either party wish to leave the partnership, they can do so by giving notice by Dec. 31 of the year prior. If board members don’t make a decision by the end of this year, IDEA will continue to build out its model for at least one more year and expand into more grades at Allan and Eastside Memorial.
Last week, some board members said if IDEA was unwilling to make changes to the contract and stay at Allan for at least one more year, they might have to rethink the partnership.
None of the grant money is specifically earmarked for IDEA Allan, but the school will benefit indirectly since many of the technology and other investments will touch all 28 schools.
“It’s sort of a good news, OK news story in terms of how this benefits students in Austin,” Torkelson said.
The district-specific Race to the Top contest followed an earlier $4 billion state competition. Texas officials opted not to apply for the grant because they said it undercut the state’s control of its public schools. away free,” said Delisi. He said shops could hand out prepackaged bottled water without a health permit.
The jugs must be washed, rinsed and dried between uses, and health officials need to know the water and ice are coming from safe, clean sources. “We’re really interested in protecting the public’s health,” said Dr. Phil Huang, medical director of the health department.
Ruth England, co-owner of Rogue, which has maintained water coolers near Interstate 35 on weekends for about four years, says her shop won’t pay for permits to put out water. “Aren’t we providing something free that everyone takes advantage of?” she said. “It just seems silly. We don’t want to incur an extra expense.”
Long-term, park officials say they’d rather have more water fountains than water coolers on the trail. But the existing fountains don’t always work, and the city shuts them off when it freezes to prevent pipe damage.
The Trail Foundation installed 10 water fountains at the Johnson Creek Trailhead under MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) earlier this year. Another bank is planned as part of the Auditorium Shores trailhead revitalization, scheduled for completion in mid-2014. Water will also be available at the east end of the boardwalk being built under Interstate 35, projected to open in 2014.
In the meantime, Carrozza advises runners to stay hydrated by using the existing fountains, carrying their own water or keeping a bottle in their car.
“At the end of the day this is important to us,” Hensley said. “We want water on the trail.”