by David Safier
Dennis Bakke, founder, President and CEO of Imagine Schools
The statement above by Dennis Bakke is the single most non-educational statement I can remember coming out of the mouth of anyone connected with education. The man who said it thinks of a charter school as the rough equivalent of a WalMart store. Once a community green lights a spot for a store/school, all the corporation has to do is attract customers and take the money they carry in with them. If the community doesn't like the way Imagine does business, it shouldn't have let the school set up shop in the first place.
Imagine Schools is a for profit corporation that runs about 72 charters in 12 states and Washington, D.C. Fourteen of those schools are in Arizona. Only Florida has more. Many of the AZ schools, maybe all of them, are for profit charters, which is legal here, though not in most states.
Bakke's corporate mindset is less surprising when you know his background. He made a bundle as CEO of AES, an international energy corporation, until he was asked to step down during the Enron debacle. He's listed a one of Forbes 400 richest people.
What's surprising is the lengths Imagine Schools is willing to go to make a profit, especially considering that Bakke is set for about a dozen very opulent lifetimes. The corporate ideal is to pack as many students in a classroom as possible, hire inexperienced teachers who can be paid low salaries, then give them a minimum of textbooks and supplies. The quality of education the students receive tends to be very low on the hierarchy of considerations. The school buildings are owned by a subsidiary, then sold to a trust which rents them to the schools at exorbitant rates and gives the subsidiary a cut. The decision making is done at the corporate level in Virginia -- the hiring, firing and purchasing. School staffs and School Boards are supposed to take orders and shut up. Anyone who steps out of line is let go. It's all about how much profit can be squeezed out of the tax dollars that follow the students.
Imagine Schools may not all fit the picture I'm painting, of course, but from what I've read and people have told me, that appears to be the corporate mindset, and the quality of education suffers accordingly.
Charters run by Imagine Schools are taking heat in the press, from Departments of Education and from Auditors General in Missouri, Nevada, Indiana, Florida and Texas. In Arizona, the schools are flying well under the radar. It may be that Imagine's charters here are stellar institutions which are well run and have the students' best interests foremost in their minds. Or, just as likely, because Arizona's Department of Education has a hands off policy toward charter schools and the Auditor General doesn't see financial reports from most of them, no one in the state government knows what's going on, or much cares.
Expect a number of posts about Imagine Schools. There are too many stories to confine them to one post. Many of the stories will come from other states, since the press hasn't looked into the charters here. I'm working on following the money trail in our Imagine charters, but it's tough work, since Arizona's financial reporting requirements for charters aren't nearly as strict as they are for school districts.
As always, I'm dependent on readers to let me know about things I can't possibly know myself. I hope to hear from parents, teachers and administrators, current and past. If you want to get in contact with me, you can either comment on the posts or email me at email@example.com. I always respect the confidentiality of people who email me if that is their wish.