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Tom Torkelson, c-founder of the IDEA charter chain, has stepped down as CEO and will be replaced by the other co-founder JoAnn Gama.
Based in Texas, IDEA is a favorite of Betsy DeVos, who has sent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to the chain to help it expand. Less than two weeks ago, DeVos gave another $72 million to IDEA. The chain previously had received more than $200 million from DeVos. She sure likes IDEA.
Torkelson and Gama arrived in the Rio Grande Valley aspartame’s ofTeach for America and started IDEA in 2000. It has become a charter behemoth in the past two decades.
The chain attracted bad publicity for its free-spending ways. One of its worst ideas was leasing a private jet for nearly $2 million a year for exclusive use of its executives and their families. After getting negative press, the board canceled the lease, and now the executives fly first class.
Jacob Carpenter wrote in The Houston Chronicle:
Torkelson’s resignation caps a remarkable run for the charter pioneer, whose ambition, charisma and results-driven approach helped propel IDEA’s remarkable expansion over the past 20 years. In recent months, however, Torkelson’s push to lease a charter jet and the disclosure of questionable financial practices under his watch prompted scrutiny of the charter.
IDEA students, the vast majority of whom are Hispanic and come from low-income families, routinely score well-above average on state standardized tests and enroll in college at high rates compared to their peers. Skeptics argue IDEA’s success is inflated by high academic standards that deter families from enrolling students with more intensive academic and behavioral needs.
Torkelson and Gama started IDEA in the late 1990s while working as teachers in the Rio Grande Valley, opening a single school together in the border city of Donna. After meager growth in its first decade, IDEA rapidly expanded in the 2010s in the Valley, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso and Fort Worth.
The network operates 91 schools in Texas enrolling 49,500 students, along with five campuses in Louisiana. IDEA is scheduled to open its first four Houston-area schools this year on two sites in northern Harris County.
Torkelson served as a key figure in IDEA’s expansion, pushing to enroll 100,000 students across the country by 2022. Earlier this year, Torkelson told the Houston Chronicle that he wanted IDEA to become “the largest high-performing school system in the United States of America.”
Torkelson also played a significant role in fundraising for IDEA, which has received tens of millions of dollars from philanthropic groups to aid its expansion.
However, some of Torkelson’s financial and operational moves led to criticism over the past several months.
Torkelson’s desire to lease a charter jet as a method of reducing travel hassles between the network’s hubs drew sharp backlash in December 2019.
One month later, more scrutiny followed the disclosure that IDEA spent about $400,000 annually on luxury boxes and tickets for events at San Antonio’s AT&T Center. IDEA officials said more than 1,000 employees received tickets each season as a reward for performance, with the “lion’s share” allotted to campus-level staff and students
During Torkelson’s tenure, several relatives of IDEA executives and board members also engaged in business dealings with the charter, including a company co-owned by Chief Operating Officer Irma Muñoz’s husband that billed more than $600,000 for uniforms, other clothing and gear.