Once Again, State Rejects Charter School Connected to Idaho Real Estate Group

Athlos Leadership Academy in Austin
Patrick Michels
North Austin’s Athlos Leadership Academy under construction in August 2014.

One of the strange things about public education in Texas is that while its political leaders talk a lot about expanding school choice, very few new charter schools get approved each year. Charter school advocates say there’s incredible unmet demand — their surveys show 130,000 families on waiting lists to get into a charter — but every year just a few new schools apply and only a handful are approved. Since an early period in the 1990s when the state opened the door to charter schools it probably shouldn’t have, Texas has been pretty conservative about handing out new charters.

Nobody knows the perils of this process better than the team behind Athlos Academy, who have been trying for the last five years to open schools focused on physical education and character development. The so-called “Athlos model” was developed by a group in Idaho that’s part real-estate firm and part education provider, and has made inroads with a few pre-existing charter schools in Texas (one of which became a basketball powerhouse after making the switch). But the state has repeatedly rejected applications for a new charter for Athlos. In 2015, in a third attempt, the Athlos team navigated all the way to the last step in the approval gauntlet, only to meet a swift and brutal veto by the State Board of Education (SBOE).

After yet another year-long regulatory slog, Athlos’ latest bid met the same fate at the SBOE meeting on Friday: another veto, this one by a 7-6 vote.

Though the school’s application passed a review by Texas Education Agency regulators, SBOE members sounded just as worried about Athlos on Friday as they were in 2015.

For one thing, Athlos had an aggressive growth plan, opening with 963 students its first year and growing to 3,323 four years later. (Two other schools approved today said they’d open with enrollments of 180 and 334.) But according to the Athlos application, just 15 prospective students’ families showed up to meetings they held in Denton.

Board member Erika Beltran said on Friday that she still didn’t see evidence of much Athlos enthusiasm from Denton. “It’s striking to me that the letters of support have mostly come from legislators,” Beltran said. “To think that we are willing to risk the academic lives of almost 1,000 children in North Texas is not a risk that I’m willing to take.”

Tiffany O’Neill, president of the Athlos team, told SBOE members that the high enrollment was necessary to pay their lease on a big new facility that they’d need to custom-build — featuring an indoor football field and a particular arrangement of classrooms — to follow the Athlos model.

Other schools that use the model, in Texas and a few other states, rely on the same Idaho construction and lending firms — Hawkins Construction and the Charter School Fund — to get these ambitious projects off the ground. Associated companies at the same address in Boise sell school uniforms and license course materials for the schools.

Athlos board members have faced tough questions about these overlapping interests before, from regulators and SBOE members concerned that so much state funding would be sent to companies in Idaho. On Friday, SBOE member Ruben Cortez wondered whether anything was different this time around.

“I know it’s really easy to assume that everyone has this nefarious purpose, and we just want to funnel money somewhere,” O’Neill told the board on Friday. “But I think the times that you’ve met our board, and I hope the times that you’ve met me, it does come through that we are earnest people.” O’Neill likened Athlos to a Montessori model, which she said requires certain curriculum materials that come from certain vendors.

In past years, Athlos had specifically mentioned agreements with the Charter School Fund. This year, the Athlos team pledged to follow competitive bidding for construction and didn’t mention arrangements with the Idaho construction firm. But the latest application still included licensing fees and school uniform costs that would go to Athlos-associated companies outside Texas.

“I’ll take a position against any out-of-state entities wanting to come up and set up a charter in Texas,” Cortez told the Observer before the veto last year. (He did not respond to a call this week.)

While Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has tried to bring more out-of-state charters to Texas, it’s noteworthy that the SBOE continues to resist Athlos specifically because of its out-of-state roots. In the last few years, the only major landing point for out-of-state networks has been San Antonio, where O’Neill came as part of a team bringing the BASIS charter network from Arizona. In that case, a local network of school choice activists, parents and foundations were working to attract those schools.

Just one of those, an outpost of the Carpe Diem network from Ohio, opened in San Antonio since Patrick’s 2013 charter school reforms took effect. Whatever the law’s intent, O’Neill told the Observer on Friday that Texas’ new approval system seems broken. “As a state, and as an education community, we are really going to have to look at the process for charter approval in the state of Texas,” she said.

Still, she said, her Athlos team would have maintained far more local control than the local leaders at Carpe Diem or BASIS outposts in Texas.

After the SBOE veto in 2015, the Athlos team was quick to announce plans to reapply. On Friday, O’Neill said she couldn’t be certain yet. “To be honest, right now we’re still as a board dealing with the disappointment of the SBOE’s decision,” she said.

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

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Published at 5:18 pm CST