IDEA charter launches aggressive expansion plans with $16 million gift

IDEA Public Schools will aggressively expand its footprint in Austin with a $16 million donation to be announced Monday.

The financial gift from the KLE Foundation, set up by Rani Clasquin and Eric Harslem in 1997, will more than double IDEA Austin’s previous expansion plans by 2022, and the charter school says the donation will help it boost enrollment to 20,000 students, more than 12 times as many as it has now.

Charter schools in Austin have grown rapidly over the past seven years, with enrollment largely limited by their facilities. They have an enrollment of 18,553 students, with an additional 11,000 on waiting lists.

“We’ve been looking at opportunities to grow for a long time,” said Larkin Tackett, executive director of IDEA Austin. “The demand is there in the community, and we feel obligated to respond to that demand.”

If IDEA can follow through on its plan, it would push the total number of Austin-area charter school students to more than 35,000 over the next six years, not including any growth by other local charter operators. Many of those students would probably transfer from the Austin school district, which is trying to persuade families to stay by offering more special programs and launching a marketing campaign.

Traditional public school advocates see the charter schools as threats to both their enrollments and state resources. Charter schools and their supporters say the competition raises the overall quality of education.

IDEA, which entered the Austin market in 2011, previously planned for three campuses that would grow to a combined enrollment of 4,200 over the next six years, growth plans that had been considered ambitious. The new plans call for 26 schools on 13 campuses, which include its two existing campuses and one opening this fall.

The charter school in August opened a second campus off Rundberg Lane, just west of Interstate 35. But the $16 million donation will provide the charter school with the funding to secure new buildings. Charter schools get little state funding for facilities, and, unlike traditional school districts, they cannot levy taxes to build schools or renovate campuses.

Charter schools in the region are concentrated in urban areas, where they largely target neighborhoods with low-performing schools. But in recent years, they’ve expanded their reach, and a handful are rivaling a few of the highest-performing area school districts for students.

IDEA this year received 3,800 applications for the 800 available slots at a new campus opening this fall.

Charter schools are independently run public schools that receive state funding. About 4 percent of the state’s student population attend charter schools, but the Austin charter population has boomed to 14 percent of local students. IDEA projects that it will educate about 6 percent of the area’s student population on its own in the next several years because of the funding boost.

The Austin district has faced dwindling enrollment for three consecutive years, with one-quarter of students who leave transferring into charter schools. The district in recent years has fought to retain and recruit students by creating a prekindergarten program for 3-year-olds and opening its schools to out-of-district transfers, among other things.

Like Austin, the Round Rock district has taken countermeasures, recently hiring its first marketing coordinator and increasing its academic offerings, as district leaders found that more than 700 of its students are now attending charter schools in Williamson County.

IDEA Austin primarily serves low-income students, the majority of them Hispanic, and, like its current two locations, plans to open campuses in areas with high percentages of poor students and a history of underperforming schools. The average student who transfers to IDEA is two years behind his peers.

“This growth is going to create a lot of opportunity for kids to go to college,” Tackett said. “As a community, we’ll be much closer to the vision that ZIP code doesn’t determine destiny. We always believed and had the desire to do more.”

IDEA Austin meets state standards, but its students’ performance on state standardized tests last year shows mixed results, exceeding state averages in some categories and not in others. Elementary grades at IDEA Allan — the only school in the chain in Austin that has existed long enough to have individual ratings — received state distinction for postsecondary readiness, and its middle school grades received distinctions in academic achievement in science and postsecondary readiness.

The mission of IDEA Public Schools, which started in the Rio Grande Valley, is to send all of its high school graduates to college. While IDEA Austin hasn’t yet had its first graduating class, all graduating seniors from the other IDEA Public Schools in Texas have been accepted to college for nine consecutive years.

Those kinds of results helped spur the KLE Foundation’s decision to financially support the charter.

“IDEA has already proven itself a leader in providing high-quality public education that leads to and through college,” said Harslem, who previously served in senior leadership roles at both Dell and Apple. “We focus our giving on evidence-based programs that get results, and IDEA has an excellent track record in this regard.”

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