Explainer: IDEA Public Schools is under TEA conservatorship. What does that mean?

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Last month, Texas Education Agency officials announced plans to place IDEA Public Schools, the state’s largest public charter school network, under state conservatorship after reports of financial mismanagement.

The move comes a year after the state education agency took over the Houston Independent School District, over the objections of local officials and residents. But there are key differences between state conservatorship and an outright state takeover.

IDEA Public Schools operates 143 charter schools across four states, including three campuses in Fort Worth and one in Haltom City. The Weslaco-based charter network came under TEA investigation in 2021, after allegations surfaced of financial mismanagement. Among other issues, IDEA officials drew fire over plans to spend $15 million to lease a private jet, according to reporting by the Houston Chronicle. The network later backtracked on those plans. The network also bought the Inn at Chachalaca Bend, a boutique hotel in Cameron County, in 2019.

On March 6, state education commissioner Mike Morath sent a letter to IDEA officials notifying them that he had appointed Christopher Ruszkowski and David Lee to serve as conservators for the charter school system. Ruszkowski is a former New Mexico education secretary; Lee was previously appointed to serve as the charter network’s monitor.

The announcement came a year after TEA officials installed an appointed board of managers to replace Houston ISD’s elected school board and removed then-Superintendent Millard House II. TEA officials later brought in former Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Mike Miles to run Houston ISD, which is the state’s largest school district.

The biggest difference between a state takeover and a conservatorship lies in who’s in charge of the district. Under a state takeover, all decisions related to district operations still happen at the local level, but they’re made by state appointees rather than an elected board.

Under a conservatorship, TEA leaves the school system’s leadership in place but sends in conservators to monitor operations. Conservators may direct the school system’s operations as needed, but their primary role is to help the school system’s leaders, not to replace them. State education officials review conservator placements every 90 days to ensure they’re still necessary for the school system to function effectively.

IDEA charter schools made changes following investigation

IDEA officials declined interview requests for this story. In a statement, officials noted that the charter reported the issues to TEA and invited additional oversight after an internal audit uncovered the violations in 2021. They noted the charter network has already made major leadership changes, including firing JoAnn Gama, the network’s founder and former superintendent. In January, the network paid $475,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit Gama filed after she was fired.

“Since 2020, IDEA has installed new board members and executive leadership, enlarged the staff responsible for grant management and compliance, and strengthened internal controls and auditing procedures,” the statement read. “With the additional oversight, IDEA is prepared for a measured and pragmatic approach to future growth while continuing to uphold its record of nearly 100% college acceptance and matriculation.”

An IDEA spokesperson also declined to answer questions on the network’s growth plans, saying that conversations about those plans are ongoing. But the network has seen fast growth in recent years, expanding beyond Texas into Ohio, Florida and Louisiana. Last November, the network broke ground on a third campus in the Tampa Bay area, which is expected to open this fall. Officials expect to open a third campus in Jacksonville, Florida, next year.