WESLACO, RGV – Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott says Texas can be No. 1 in the nation for public education if it follows the best practices of institutions like IDEA Public Schools.

Abbott held a roundtable discussion on education at IDEA Weslaco last Thursday. He said that through competition, IDEA, a tuition-free K-12 public charter system that serves more than 15,000 students in 30 schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley, has forced school districts such as those in McAllen, Mission and La Joya to improve.

Abbott pointed out that 85 percent of IDEA students come from low-income families, many from colonias. However, about 99 percent go on to college. Its motto is “College for All Students. No Excuses.”

“They (IDEA) are able to educate students that grow up in the colonias to go to school, to have the dream of higher education. These skills and applications (taught at IDEA) are the kinds of things I want to see replicated across the state,” Abbott said.

Land developer Mike Rhodes has been on the board of directors at IDEA for nine years. During the roundtable discussion with Abbott, Rhodes described his time on the board as being “the most exciting thing I have ever got to be a part of.” Rhodes said he first heard about IDEA after seeing an article in a newspaper. He said he immediately contacted IDEA to ask if it could open a school in the western part of Hidalgo County where he was developing.

When he is asked to explain what IDEA is like, Rhodes said he compares it to a “business incubator.” He told Abbott that IDEA’s successes can be replicated elsewhere. “A lot of innovations in charters are being repeated in regular schools. Competition is good. You do not find innovation when there is no competition. I have seen three different districts in the Valley have full page ads comparing themselves to IDEA,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said education standards are improving in the Valley because IDEA is forcing regular school districts to strive for excellence, to compete for students. “Once you start taking enough students, which is money, from the district, they begin to respond. And the right response is ‘we can do better.’ We are seeing that in the Valley.”

Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott (far right) discussed public education with staff, teachers, and directors at IDEA Weslaco last Thursday.
Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott (far right) discussed public education with staff, teachers, and directors at IDEA Weslaco last Thursday.

Abbott asked Rhodes which school districts had taken out advertisements in the newspaper comparing their performance to IDEA. Rhodes said Mission, McAllen and La Joya. Abbott referenced this at the news conference. “We are seeing already by comments made in my meeting today the role that IDEA has goes far beyond just educating students. It has stimulated competition in the education community. Schools are having to compete for students. It is elevating the education product in McAllen, Mission and La Joya,” Abbott said. “This competition, this choice the parents have, the real consumers in the education arena, is going to transform the way that education is provided and transform the quality of education in this state.”

Abbott has been holding education roundtable discussions around the state. He said the one thing he has learned is that his goal to move Texas to No. 1 in the nation for public education is achievable. Based on funding, Texas is somewhere near the bottom, according to various reports.

“One thing I have learned is that my goal of seeing the Texas education system rise to the No. 1 ranking in the country is achievable,” Abbott said. “When you have a school (IDEA) that can have such a large population of low income students, including students from colonias, be able to come to the school, get a great education, have the dream of going to college and actually go on to college at the rate of 99 percent of the graduates, you see that the No. 1 ranking is within our grasp. We just need to focus on the educational tools and techniques that work and then use those across the state of Texas and we will be able to achieve that goal.”

Asked by a reporter to define that ranking, Abbott said one of the criteria that should be used is graduation rates. Another would be college preparedness and another would be how students score on standardized tests, such as SAT, ACT and the NAEP tests used in fourth and eighth grades. “We can look at a couple of other criteria that we will include, that we will evaluate as we take this process along. But, that gives you an idea on some of the ideas I am looking at, some objectively verifiable standards.”

Christina Marin has taught at IDEA Weslaco for the past two years. She came to the Valley from southern California through Teach for America having seen a video about colonias in the Valley. “I had never been here before. I saw a video of a colonia and I knew I had to be here. I am so glad I got placed here,” Marin said. The sixth grade math teacher said she likes the fact that IDEA’s approach is data-driven. “We want our students to graduate with honors within six years. That really drives me. I have seen great success with my students.”

Marin told Abbott the story of a student from Mexico who had been out of school for two years. The student had entered a lottery and was accepted at IDEA Weslaco. “I remember when she came she was at the third grade level. I was really worried for her. I thought, wow, she is at sixth grade math, she is at third grade level, what are we going to do, she has not been to school for two years. I think my coaching from my principal and how much IDEA taught me about being data-driven, I was able to look at my student and see where she needed help and I was able to help her reach her goal,” Marin said. “I am so proud of her.” Abbott told Marin: “That is terrific. Congratulations to you and what you do.”

Tom Torkelson is CEO of IDEA Public Schools. He told Abbott’s roundtable that if a child goes from Weslaco ISD to IDEA Weslaco, “$800 of state funding disappears because they are going to a charter school rather than a district.” Torkelson said no one at IDEA is advocating that charters get more money than districts. Rather, he said, IDEA would like to see parity in funding. “For me it makes sense to give at least as much money for the highest performing organizations,” he said. Asked by Abbott where the money would go if IDEA received more money from the state, Torkelson replied that it would primarily be used to pay teachers a higher salary. “We know that parents kill for getting their kids in the absolute best class with the best teachers. We’ve got great teachers now but we are growing like crazy so we have to ensure we continue to attract the best folks,” Torkelson said.

IBC Bank-McAllen President David Guerra is on the board of directors at IDEA. Guerra told Abbott’s roundtable that one of the advantages of being a director at IDEA is that no elections are held and no election campaigns have to be fought. “It allows us to focus on the quality of the school. We do not try to second guess our administration because we are also data-driven, just like Tom and his staff is. We get a lot of reports that tell us how we are doing.” Guerra said the board expects and gets a “high level of excellence” from all the staff at IDEA, with Torkelson excelling more than anyone else. “We just need more buildings. We need parity on student imbursements. We are ready to educate the kids of South Texas. They are great kids, their parents are supportive. We want to do everything we can for them,” Guerra said.