A weekend interview with ...
... Dennis and Eileen Bakke, founders of Imagine Schools, a Virginia-based charter school firm that has been expanding its presence in Florida. Imagine opened new schools in Pinellas, Pasco and about a dozen other counties this year, and recently won approval to expand its St. Petersburg campus into the middle grades. The Bakkes spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about their plans and philosophy.
I notice that you're opening quite a number of schools here in Florida, and I was just interested in knowing why Florida is such a vibrant market for you.
Dennis Bakke: I think the opportunities, it's probably our largest state. We have set a goal just to do as many schools as we can do. We want to help as many parents to educate their children as we can. So we go wherever we think we can be welcomed into the community to put a school in. We're in 15 states or so, and Florida, Arizona, Ohio and some of these other places are just really attractive. It is possible to do schools, these are communities that more or less support competition and charter schools, schools of choice. That's an important reason to come to a place like Florida. ...
Do you find that the local school districts can be resistant or reluctant to allow you to open new schools?
DB: Yes. I think most of the time. And it's natural, right? I mean, it's like Burger King going to McDonald's and asking them whether they could put a store right next to the McDonald's store and, by the way, it will be good for you. It's essentially what is being asked by these people. It's not fair ... to have it done that way. There should be a system by which you can get the charters through the state or some other authorizers like they do in other states. It is a problem. If I was a school district, I probably would fight it too, although it is very good for them. That is, competition is what makes everybody better. ... Most monopoly school districts do not have any competition, and it makes it hard for them to be as good as they could be. When we come along, we actually do this friendly competition, in effect, for parents. And either the school district is going to get better in order to compete with us, or the kids will all end up with us.
I notice you have a number of applications in to the state agency, the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission. Is that to get around the reluctance from the school districts that you're facing?
DB: I think it's a much fairer system to go to someone outside. Again, I said it before, it's not really fair to have to go to the district and ask them to okay their competition. Think about that. It just doesn't make much sense. We would rather go to the state or some other system, and in some cases we've had to because the local districts have not cooperated.
(The company's development director for West Florida interjected here that Imagine sent its applications to both the districts and the FSE this year to speed the appeal process in the event the requests are denied.)
It's very important that this kind of alternative school like we're talking about, putting in friendly competition is so crucial to the improvement and quality of schools, that we just want to do as many as we possibly can do.
What do you think is the biggest downfall of the school system that you're trying to compete with? What's your opening there?
DB: The problem is, basically, a monopoly. You know, we make monopolies illegal in private business, right? Why is that? Because the prices go up and the quality goes down. Because if you don't have competition, there's no incentive to do a better job. There's no customer out there that matters. And so it is really important that in education there is nothing wrong per se with the local public school district that competition wouldn't solve. If they had to compete, and when they do, they will get better. It's as simple as that. ... Sometimes you have a new superintendent come in and shake things up and make things work for a little while. But within a few years the pressure to keep improving, keep changing with the times, changing with the population -- you know, we have big shifts in population, every 20 years or so it's a whole new group of people in the community -- and if you aren't focused enough on those customers to keep changing you will lose them all. ... So it's really important that we open up the
whole state to having some friendly competition go on. Then everyone would do better.
Eileen Bakke: The other appeal that charter schools have to parents is that every child is different is different and every child learns differently. Our public school districts have become very centralized, and one size doesn't fit all children. What parents are looking for in charter schools is just a different environment, or a different curriculum, or smaller class size, more hands-on learning - something that fits their child. And the wonderful thing about the charter school movement is that each school is unique. Each one of our charter schools is different and unique. And I think that really appeals to parents. Our public schools do a fantastic job. Our nation has really outstanding public schools. But when you have one curriculum, one methodology throughout the whole district, it doesn't meet the needs of every child.
DB: Even when it's a great thing for some kids, and it may be great for five years, and then it misses something. So Eileen's point is really important. When you have competition you get niches, and people specialize in a particular area. For Imagine, we've tried to say that every decision is going to be made by local people, and therefore every school is going to be designed uniquely for that local place. ... We have three values that we require. That is, we have to live with integrity, justice and fun. Almost everything else is subject to individual school situations. ...
(another of the firm's employees interjected that rich families already have school choice, and said that charter schools expands the ability to choose schools to less well-off families.)
DB: Nationwide, our free and reduced lunch ... is about 55 percent of our students. So your point is really a good one. So this is an option. Now, it really isn't an option yet, because there's not nearly enough charter schools to really be an option. Here in the capital city, we really need to have five or six schools to be a factor. We're not even a blip with just one school. That's why we have to continue to add schools, so we can be a factor in that competition. We need other charter schools as well, and not just Imagine. ...
How do you gauge the success of your schools? How do you determine whether you want to keep them operating or whether you want to change them or do something else?
DB: That's a really good question. One of the things I noticed when I came from business to education was that in business ... they talk about results. Sometimes the wrong results, but they always talk about results. In education, I notice, it's about what I call inputs. If you think about it, everybody talks about, well, What's your curriculum? That's usually the first question.
Curriculum isn't a result. That's an input. What's the certification of your teachers? What's the experience of your principal? How much do you pay? Those kinds of things. How fancy is your building? Or, how new is it? All kinds of inputs.
We sat down and said, What are the results we really want? So we developed our Six Measures of Excellence. They are the way we measure quality. If you read our annual report, you will see every school graded on every one of these results. ...
With the economic sustainability issue, I look at the state of Florida scaling back the amount of money it's putting into schools just generally. Do you see that as problematic for you as well? ... How do you stay open when everybody is talking about how hard it is?
It is hard. I think Florida has overdone it in terms of cutting back, especially in terms of class size. There was no evidence for that. I think everybody is just shooting themselves in the foot. It makes it really difficult, but we're saying, Folks, it can be difficult -- Florida is not the lowest, by the way. Arizona has less. We have to live within our means. The research says it has very little to do with how much you spend per child. But you're right. We don't have any bonds to pay for our buildings. We have to pay it ourselves. It's even tougher for us. So it's a challenge. A huge challenge. Why in the world, by the way, would you ever get turned down if you're willing to take on that challenge? Why would you ever turn down a charter school that is willing to pay that bill? I mean, from a political standpoint it makes no sense. I don't care how bad they are. Parents will decide how bad they are. So, yes, we are trying to make it work.
So what's your goal for Florida? Do you have a number?
We don't have a number anywhere in the country. What we are trying to do is, let's just do as many as we can and let's do them well. Somebody said, Well, how can you do so many? I think we had 24 or 25 new schools this year. Well, I didn't start 25 new schools. We had 150 different people working on those schools. ... There's no real limit to how many we can do. We just want to make sure we're doing them well and there's somebody excited about it.