Accountability Charter Schools Education Industry Privatization Texas

Steve Miller: Texas Charter Schools Are Transparent Except When They Are Not

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IDEA Public Schools, for example, allows first class air travel for its employees and is looking into the lease of a private jet. But as long as it insists that the perks are being paid for with private funds, the expenditures are free from oversight, discovered only through deep dives into IDEA’s tax returns.

Charter schools and open records are “an enormous can of worms,” said Joe Larsen, a Houston public records lawyer. “It’s neither dog nor wolf — it’s kind of private and kind of public. The courts and the legislature keep grappling with it, as they want charters to have the advantage of a private entity to make more efficient choices.”

But, he said, the effort to allow charters the freedom to innovate also gives them more room to operate on the margins of transparency.

A public records dispute between a Pharr newspaper and IDEA, one of the state’s biggest charter operators, shows the divide.

In 2017, the Advance News Journal in Pharr asked for details of IPS Enterprises, a business created by IDEA. Charter officials refused to provide details and referred the request to the state attorney general’s office for a ruling. 

IDEA won the lawsuit, and today no one knows much about IPS Enterprises, a for-profit entity that state records show is based at the same tax-exempt Weslaco address as IDEA. Records show IPS in 2017 received a $4.7 million contract from the U.S. Department of Education.

The newspaper never even considered suing IDEA for the records.

“We didn’t even get involved after they sued the AG,” said Advance Publishing publisher Gregg Wendorf. “They have way more money than us anyway.”

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