Superintendent Byrd should clarify her relationship with the IDEA charter school chain

If she's planning to work for IDEA, Mrs. Byrd should say so during or prior to Tuesday's School Board vote. The public has a right to know.

The IDEA company — a high drop-out rate corporate charter school chain — is presenting its case to the Polk School Board on Tuesday.

Here’s the IDEA agenda item for Tuesday.

[Before you ask, “high drop out rate” is the phrase that should actually be used instead of “choice.” All “choice” schools have elevated drop out rates. The scale of the dropping out runs like this: district-run magnets (not as bad as it used to be); charters (higher than magnets); voucher schools (absurdly bad 61 percent 2-year program drop-out rate.) “High drop out rate” also leads to an “application screening effect,” which tends to screen out potential applicants. More on “high drop out rate” vs. “choice” to come in a future article. But suffice it to say, if your business model depends on drop outs — on your ability to get rid of or avoid kids, you’re not actually a good school.]

IDEA is planning a school for north Lakeland to develop over the next few years. I think the idea is to poach kids from Griffin Elementary. The board presentation is a silly formality. Kelli Stargel and state government have stripped elected school boards of any meaningful power to oversee IDEA or any other high drop out rate charter or voucher school. If your elected board votes no, they’ll just get the unelected state Board of Education to overturn the decision. I would vote “no” on that issue alone — and make the state continue to demonstrate its endless contempt for local democracy by forcing the school into place without my complicity. But that’s me.

An IDEA school is literally the only suggestion that Kate Wallace, Lakeland Leads, and the other Lakeland Economic Development Council-adjacent folks have for enhancing education in Polk County. [Lakeland Leads still has not released its very expensive, comically vapid education white paper to the public.] And it’s hard to imagine a more status quo cause to champion in Polk County than a single high-drop out rate IDEA charter school.

The only difference in IDEA and Polk’s other high drop out rate choice schools is that an out-of-town company’s top executives gets to make big bank off Polk kids — whether they drop out or not — so they can roll in private jets and chauffeured SUVs. Not kidding about that.

[The question of “profit” versus “non-profit” charter is a legal and semantic one, complicated by real estate and management company grifting. But let’s put it this way: IDEA and Magnolia Montessori both consider themselves “non-profit.” That’s a rather ridiculous juxtaposition. I’ll use “corporate,” I think, in describing IDEA and other big money chains.]

So how bad is IDEA’s drop out rate? Not as bad as the voucher schools; but not great.

Chalkbeat reported that roughly a third of IDEA kids didn’t make it four years with the company “at one point.” I’m not clear precisely when that was, or if that’s changed. But I doubt it. Charter attrition/dropout rates are not regularly tracked, by design. Drop outs are fundamental to the business model. And like most other high drop out rate choice schools, IDEA doesn’t do ESE or challenging behaviors in any real way. Here’s a link to the full Chalkbeat story. Key excerpts:

Who, exactly, those graduates are is a topic of contention, especially among leaders of local school districts. IDEA’s schools enroll students through a lottery, but some students with past criminal or disciplinary records can be excluded

…Once students arrive, a sizeable chunk also leave IDEA within four years — at one point, at least one-third of students did. The schools’ share of students with disabilities is low, too: 4.8 percent in 2016-17. Texas’ statewide rate was 8.8 percent [Polk’s is roughly 13 percent] that year, and the state’s rates have been low enough to spark a federal investigation. (Torkelson says the network’s teaching practices allow students to avoid being labeled; the network did not provide updated numbers on students who leave.)

IDEA also caught criticism recently because its top executives were rolling in a private jet and chauffeured limos.

Last October, the CEO and president of the largest charter school company in Texas took a trip to Houston. They didn’t travel the way most public-school employees would have. Instead, they traveled by private jet, their spouses and five children came along for the trip, and they got around Houston not by Uber or rental car, but in a chauffeured SUV.

That trip was just one item in an $800,000 bill that IDEA Public Schools racked up between 2017 and 2019 on private jets and other luxe travel spending. Although IDEA received $319 million from the State of Texas and $71 million in federal money in 2018, this kind of travel would be illegal for public school district and state employees in Texas. Traditional public-school supporters and charter school advocates alike say it’s the kind of spending that gives a black eye to the charter school concept.

And this gets a little technical, but IDEA is a “School of Hope” operator, a special category of corporate charter created by the state a few years ago. It is supposed to target/serve kids without much capital and help them “escape” their neighborhood schools. You’ll have to decide for yourself how kids without much capital will fare in a school with a 30-plus% dropout rate thats sends those 30-plus% of kids (most of whom will be kids of color without much access to capital) right back to their neighborhood school.

Mrs. Byrd should say if IDEA is part of her future

Ever since Kate Wallace and Lakeland Leads flew Mrs. Byrd to a week-long luxury stay at a fancy San Diego hotel for Jeb Bush’s “choice”-promoting education foundation conference in November 2019, I have heard wide-ranging chatter and speculation that she went there to look for a job in that world — the lucrative and grifty world outside real public education.

Mrs. Byrd has never given any account of what she did or who she spoke to during that week. But the IDEA company was high on the potential list of speculative employers because of its ties to Wallace and Lakeland Leads and the wider LEDC orbit, who have promoted and collaborated with IDEA, a fact I know from multiple sources in and out of the Polk District.

That speculation about IDEA and Mrs. Byrd increased a few months after Mrs. Byrd announced her retirement and blamed it on elected school board members performing basic government oversight on behalf of the public. IDEA is making a big push in Florida and Hillsborough County, specifically. It would make sense for Mrs. Byrd to take some sort of regional oversight role. That’s the theory. I have no idea if it’s true. It’s gossip, which is why I never wrote anything about it publicly.

But now IDEA is actually a policy issue for the Polk School Board and District. As a citizen and taxpayer, I think it’s appropriate for Mrs. Byrd to address the gossip and state the nature of her past, current, and future role with IDEA now. I would certainly do so in her place.

If she has no relationship with IDEA — and has no plans to work for IDEA — that should be quite easy to say. If she does have a relationship, disclosing it now would help avoid a John Small-K12 scandal situation. Small was Mrs. Byrd’s top deputy superintendent back in 2017. Here’s full background on that sorry episode. Key excerpt:

Back in May 2017, Polk's then Deputy Superintendent John Small, a public employee, directed his subordinate at the Polk District, also a public employee, to sign a $1.8 million “sales quote” with K12 to create a specialized virtual learning portal and greatly expanded product presence for Polk County. The business goal seemed to be to make K12 the dominant curriculum vendor for Polk Virtual School. The subordinate did not sign the sales quote, despite Small's pressure, because this "sales quote" had not been presented to or approved by the elected School Board.

A few months later, in fall of 2017, John Small retired from the district and immediately went to work for K12. About the same time, K12 tried for the first time to collect from Polk County taxpayers on this $1.8 million contract for a greatly expanded K12 product that did not exist. I still don’t know if Small was working for the Polk District or K12 when K12 first tried to collect on the non-existent contract or product cited in the "sales quote."

With all that in mind, if I were a board member, I would ask Mrs Byrd directly at the Tuesday work session:

Mrs. Byrd, have you had any discussions with representatives of IDEA or Kate Wallace or David Hallock about going to work for the IDEA company after you “retire” in your early 50s? Do you plan to work for IDEA in the future? Can you rule it out?

The fact that I would ask that in public is precisely why Mrs. Byrd, Kate Wallace, Dave Hallock, and big charter school companies didn’t want me to be a board member anymore. I think we can all agree on that. But there are many, many worse reasons not to be a board member.

A courtesy Mrs. Byrd should pay her supporters

Now, to be clear, neither an IDEA school nor Mrs. Byrd are particularly important to the future of public education in Polk County or Florida. Much greater forces are at work at the state and national level. At the local level, IDEA, like other for-profit charters, is very late to the Polk County party when it comes to strip-mining kids that throw off “good” numbers on test scores. Especially in Lakeland. There’s a better market for that in Northeast Polk, which is why a handful of for-profit charters are targeting that area.

Also, the board vote is largely meaningless beyond its symbolic value. But the public does pay Mrs. Byrd’s salary and will pay for the IDEA charter school to operate and for executives to roll in private jets. I think good government should be transparent about these things and have respect for the people who do the paying. If you think that, too, I would encourage you to ask Mrs. Byrd about it or ask your elected board member to.

A number of people invested deep emotion in Mrs. Byrd.

As the first black superintendent of Polk County, she was an important community symbol. Sometimes, some individual members of groups like the NAACP and Voters League and some long-time racially-focused political advocates like Don Brown seemed to take basic oversight and criticism of Mrs. Byrd personally. That’s understandable because symbols are very very powerful and important. (See Lakeland’s Confederate monument, which I was happy to help remove from the center of our city.)

But having spent quite a bit of time around the NAACP and Don Brown and other folks, I know their support and commitment to real, neighborhood-based, egalitarian public schools that take everybody and don’t celebrate high drop out rates.

And if Mrs. Byrd is planning to flout that commitment and take her symbolic importance to IDEA and what it represents, I think she owes it to the NAACP and Don Brown and everybody else to say so now.