HARLINGEN, RGV – The co-founder of IDEA Public Schools says just like competition is good for business, it is good for the parents of students also.

Tom Torkelson spoke about the need for competition at a groundbreaking ceremony for IDEA’s first school in Harlingen. The nonprofit charter is now the largest of its kind in the nation.

“People are asking us, why are we we opening up a school in Harlingen. Two reasons, one our San Benito School, three miles that way, has over a thousand students on the waiting list. We have got to open up a new school to alleviate that waiting list,” Torkelson said. “The second thing is… competition makes us better.”

Tom Torkelson

He went to on to give examples of how competition in the Rio Grande Valley is healthy.

“I am sure Valley Baptist wishes they were still the only hospital here in the Harlingen area but now there are several. I am sure all you elected officials wish that every single year you got to run unopposed but competition keeps us honest and makes us better,” Torkelson said.

“I am sure that those of you who own a business or a car dealership wish that you had a total monopoly on your community. But, the reality is consumers and citizens and residents win when there is competition.”

He then talked about principle of competition as it relates to education.

“It is unfair to expect one district in one city to be able to provide everything for all the of the needs of all of the families and all of the students. So, what we have done is made sure that families and parents and students have a choice where they want to put their kids in school.”

After graduating from Georgetown University, Torkelson first came to the Rio Grande Valley in 1997 as a Teach For America corps member. He taught fourth grade at Donna ISD and says it was his good fortune to be teaching across the hall from Houston native JoAnn Gama. Together they started IDEA Academy within the Donna school system in 2000.

Fast forward almost 20 years and IDEA is now Texas’ and America’s largest nonprofit charter school network. IDEA Harlingen is the 96th school in a network that now serves 53,000 students. According to IDEA’s website, 29,000 of these students are being educated in more than 40 IDEA schools across the Valley. Torkelson is now chief executive officer of IDEA and Gama is president and superintendent.

Interviewed after the groundbreaking ceremony, Torkelson explained that IDEA Public Schools is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

“We have a board of directors, we follow all of the same rules and regulations as a traditional public school. Not one cent of tuition is charged to any of our students and, not one cent of local funding from any of your tax levies comes to pay for IDEA. So, it is a great, great, deal for the taxpayers of South Texas,” Torkelson told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We emphasize the Public in IDEA Public Schools because we are open to each and every student who wants to attend a college-prep education.”

Asked to respond to complaints from some people in traditional public schools that IDEA only takes the best and brightest students, Torkelson said:

“Well, we are taking all students. We are taking students with special needs, we are taking students who might be a couple of grade levels below, we are taking students who have known from the moment they entered school that they wanted to attend an elite college or university. We have got the same cross-section of students, the same promise, the same challenge, the same opportunity that every other school system has.”

Torkelson said he had read a quote in a local newspaper that from a school superintendent that IDEA “takes all the good kids and leaves the other ones behind.”

He responded: “I said, well, superintendent, identify all those kids that you don’t want to educate and we will take them at IDEA Public Schools. We are more, more, more than happy to be able to serve more students.”

JoAnn Gama

Asked about the growth of IDEA, Torkelson said: “We are 96 schools today. We will be at 100,000 students and nearly 200 campuses by the year 2022, which is just around the corner. We have been wooed by nearly every community across the United States for us to open up a tuition-free IDEA school in their community and we are going just as fast as we can but as slow as we have to, to make sure the quality and that the bar of excellence remains high.”

Asked about the reach of IDEA, Torkelson said: “The majority of our schools are here in the Rio Grande Valley. We have got 24 schools in San Antonio, a dozen schools in Austin, six schools in El Paso. Fort Worth, Texas opened up this year. Houston is opening up next year. We opened up Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, over the past 18 months as well. And it all began here in the Rio Grande Valley.”

IDEA aims to have 100 percent of its graduates go to and through university or college. More than 5,000 IDEA alumni are currently attending, or have graduated from, 150 colleges and universities across the country.

In his speech at the Harlingen groundbreaking ceremony, Torkelson said he is so proud when traveling around Texas to see a sign promoting a local IDEA school or students wearing an IDEA uniform. “I am so proud we have been able to export that from the Rio Grande Valley,” he said.

He concluded his remarks at the groundbreaking by saying:

“You all have an airport, you have a Bass Pro Shop, you all were one of the first communities to get a Starbucks and I apologize that it has taken us 19 years to get an IDEA school here in Harlingen but we are more than making up for lost time.”

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell arrived at the groundbreaking ceremony too late to give remarks. However, he gave his support in this interview with reporters from the Rio Grande Guardian and Valley Morning Star: “We welcome IDEA, it is great to have them in our community. Obviously it is a beautiful new building they are constructing and we wish them the best of success.”

Other speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony included state Sen. Eddie Lucio and Harlingen City Commissioner Mike Mezmar. Jill Dominguez, regional superintendent for IDEA in the Valley, emceed the event.

The above podcast has the entire raw audio from the IDEA Harlingen groundbreaking ceremony.