Robert Luddy joins us this week to talk about his ventures as the founder of several successful private schools in and around Raleigh, North Carolina. Could private education supplant public schooling?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Here’s a short video from Reason.tv’s Jim Epstein featuring Luddy and his work.
Other Free Thoughts episodes on education and school choice:
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Robert Luddy, CEO and founder of CaptiveAire, the nation’s leading manufacturer of commercial kitchen ventilation systems. He’s also the chairman and founder of Thales Academy, a network of private schools around Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Bob.
Robert Luddy: Glad to be here, Trevor. Thank you.
Trevor Burrus: Why did you decide to found [00:00:30] Thales Academy?
Robert Luddy: I originally founded the Franklin Academy in 1998 which was a public charter school. By 2006, there was a cap on charter schools and I decided we better to go private. I had a small meeting of parents which I thought might be 10 and about 30 showed up at our corporate office. From that meeting I thought that there was going to be enough interest to begin a what I call affordable high quality [00:01:00] private school system. One of my initial goals was to create a large enough model to convince people that there is a better way to deliver K-12 education.
Trevor Burrus: Before you did that, you actually tried to run for school board at some point. Is that correct?
Robert Luddy: I did. I ran for school board in 97 and won the won first round, but then the second round I lost which was merciful.
Trevor Burrus: What did [00:01:30] that teach you about … Either that experience or other experiences teach you about public education and what’s wrong with it.
Robert Luddy: Well, if you go back to 1992, I was the co-chair of the North Carolina Math and Science Coalition. One thing that I learned from dealing with these administrators, they were happy to talk and debate issues, but they were not going to change. That was further indicated when I ran for school board. That [00:02:00] if you were a reformed candidate or you have new ideas, you’re going to be attacked because the stickiness of the system, everybody within the public school system wants to maintain the status quo because it essentially works for them.
Trevor Burrus: Especially the teacher’s unions.
Robert Luddy: Absolutely. All those that support the public schools whether it’s construction, booksellers, administrators and all the purveyors of other [00:02:30] products that are sold at schools.
Aaron Powell: You founded Franklin. You founded Thales. You ran for school board. One of the objections when Donald Trump chose Betsy DeVos as his education secretary from people who were not friendly to a reform candidate was this person didn’t come up through the public education system. They don’t have long-term working experience there. The don’t have [00:03:00] formal teacher training and so therefore they shouldn’t be in charge of either all schools or some schools. Did that kind of attitude come up? Did it come up in your school board stuff? Do you think that that’s necessary and what sort of background do you have in schools?
Robert Luddy: First of all, it’s not necessary. In some cases, if you’re going to be a disruptor, it’s probably not desirable because the longer [00:03:30] people are around the system, the more they tend to believe in it. Whereas when someone comes from the outside with a whole new point of view, they’re able to see the flaws more clearly. My background was in finance. Most of my career was spent in engineering, manufacturing and sales. Something that gave me the real life experience to understand what students need to know, how they need to act when they get into [00:04:00] the marketplace.
Trevor Burrus: In terms of the kind of workers that you are employing and the kind of skills they needed along those lines is what you mean?
Robert Luddy: Exactly.
Trevor Burrus: When you had the charter school, you mentioned that there was a cap. What other constraints were on your charter? It still exist from what I can tell, correct?
Robert Luddy: Yeah. I’m still the chairman of that charter school. We’re entering our 20th year this summer. The cap was no more than 100 charter schools in North Carolina. That [00:04:30] cap was finally lifted in 2010. However, there are substantial regulations on charter schools. The Department of Public Construction has a special group that constantly is issuing directives. I’ll give you one example. Our Franklin Academy would have two board meetings per year and we have a very stable board. Most have been with us since the foundation of the school. The state came back and said, “You [00:05:00] have to have eight meetings a year because you have to review your strategic plan at every meeting.” I said, “Well number one, we don’t have a strategic plan and number two, we only need two board meetings a year.
We’re not going to do it.” Subsequently, they passed a resolution on the state school board that required all charters to have eight meetings per year.
Trevor Burrus: I’m just sitting here because meetings are so [00:05:30] counterproductive so often. I can’t imagine just mandating meetings for meeting’s sake. That sounds like the kind of thing the government does though.
Robert Luddy: Exactly. It’s much more challenging for teachers. You have these IEPs which you’re familiar with, Individual Educational Plans. They tend to be legalistic and more focused on paperwork and documentation than actual learning. In our private schools, we don’t recognize the IEP [00:06:00] program principally because we believe that every student within our school already has an IEP because we’re going to monitor every single student to make sure that they meet the requirements.
Aaron Powell: These kinds of rules and regulations that are on charter schools, the common view among people who are fans of public education and would say would be opposed to expanding private education or expanding school choice would say these are necessary. Maybe a school [00:06:30] that its board doesn’t get together more than twice a year, the leadership isn’t really connected to what’s going on at the school level and so it won’t be as well run. Similar things can be said. Are these kinds of regulations well meaning if ultimately harmful or is there something else going on? Is this more about intentionally trying to make things difficult for charter schools?
Robert Luddy: I think they’re well [00:07:00] meaning and intuitively they sound good to the public. Therefore, the bureaucrats are able to take advantage of them. For example, if you say we have a licensed teacher, that sounds pretty good to a parent in the public. Then if you say to a parent, “Well, what are the other requirements to be a licensed teacher and why is that important,” they won’t know. You could use the same line of questioning [00:07:30] on accreditation. Our private schools are not accredited. Well, actually none of our schools are accredited. If someone says, “Well, it’s important to be accredited,” and I will ask them why and then usually they’ll say, “So that you can get into college.” Then I tell them, “Well, colleges don’t care about accreditation. It’s just not a criteria.
It’s not required whatsoever and we put students in the best colleges in the land.” Then they begin to think differently [00:08:00] about it. In addition, I’ll say, “Well, our Wake County schools are accredited and you know they’re graduating terrible students. How is that working?” As they begin to think about it more they realize the folly of many of these ideas.
Trevor Burrus: When you were creating Thales, did you yourself have a theory of education or an educational philosophy that you wanted to pursue or did you get a bunch of people together to try and figure out what kind of school this would be?
Robert Luddy: [00:08:30] No, I had my own theory, yes, or essentially adopted from other people. One is in the K-5 we use a methodology called Direct Instruction. It was put together 4 years ago by a man named Engelmann. He essentially said, “There should be a scientific way of teaching reading, math, phonics and spelling and mathematics to students.” He developed both a curriculum and a methodology of instruction [00:09:00] that’s definitely effective. It’s probably the most effective way you can teach reading known to man. We essentially adopted that system and we became one of the best practitioners in the country in this K-5 Direct Instruction. In the sixth to twelfth grade, we adopted what we call the Classical Curriculum.
Essentially what I had in high school. In the Classic Curriculum, it takes you all the way [00:09:30] back to the Greeks and Romans. It teaches you history, rhetoric and gives you a fuller understanding of the world with the idea and the end game being to develop good characters who are great thinkers.
Trevor Burrus: Kind of interesting because a lot of times when you hear about private schools and Aaron actually has more experience in this than I do because his wife had taught at private schools, but they usually seem almost less regimented than your traditional public school. You talked about [00:10:00] Direct Instruction model and its regimentation and the science of it. That of course, was part of the public school model of trying to figure out the way to educate people. One of the interesting things about your school that people do not expect for private schools is that the class sizes are actually bigger. Why is that?
Robert Luddy: Well, when I went to high school, we average 50 plus students. At no time was there any discussion about class [00:10:30] size. In my mind if you have 25 students in a room, it seems like a small class. I’ve taught many classes and seminars around the country and normally if I’m doing a seminar presenting, I’d rather have more people not fewer people. Now that could put a little bit of stress on the teacher in terms of correcting exams, but for example in our K-5 system, we do homogenous grouping. [00:11:00] In first grade we might have four reading groups and every student is in a group where they can learn. Every month we reevaluate and the students will stay the same. They may go to a higher group or they may go to a lower group.
If they move to a lower group, it’s only temporarily so they can learn the lessons and then they move upward. The homogenous grouping allows many more students. If we had 30 students in [00:11:30] a Direct Instruction class, it wouldn’t make any differences whatsoever. We do require close to perfect discipline. We don’t have disciplinary issues to deal with. If we’re unable to discipline a child in a given day, we send them home. Now as a result of that, it’s very rare that a child ever goes home because everybody knows the requirements. By making a few changes, we’re able to have larger class [00:12:00] size, more robust instruction and drive down cost.
Aaron Powell: Do you select for disciplined children upon entering the program? I have an eight year and two four year olds at home and I know that first graders and second graders can have a hard time sitting still all day and focusing. Are you I guess weeding out the kids that are going [00:12:30] to have discipline problems or are you teaching them to be that disciplined while they’re there?
Robert Luddy: We are teaching them to be disciplined. For example, in the public charter school we admit by lottery and that’s where we started this process. It’s incumbent upon the teacher to be able to manage that class. There are times and cases when she’s unable to manage a particular student and then students generally know it’s just not permissible. It becomes [00:13:00] not easy, but much easier to manage that class than it would be in other types of settings.
Trevor Burrus: What are the admission requirements?
Robert Luddy: Well, for a public charter there’s no admission requirements. For Thales, we do require that they sometimes take tests. They have an interview with the teacher. We accept into the 95th percentile of students. Here’s something very interesting about [00:13:30] Direct Instruction. Very often we will have students that are labeled LD. They come into the program and we don’t offer any special learning disability programs, but we’ll say, “Put them in our program and more than likely they’ll do fine.” We have many students that enter with IEPs, LD or some other classification that do tremendously well and acclimate to Direct Instruction. Again it saves an [00:14:00] enormous amount of time, allows us to mainstream the student and has been definitely effective for us.
Trevor Burrus: What about the costs of this? It is a nonprofit which is interesting, but the cost per student and how that is paid either by the parent or do you have scholarship systems? Are most of these students wealthy or do you have different ways of assisting?
Robert Luddy: Most of them are middle [00:14:30] class. Some are lower middle class. They pay in a number of ways. The tuition in the K-5 is $5,000. Many parents can afford $5,000 if they sacrifice somewhere else. We do provide a certain number of scholarships which are determined through an organization called FACTS. F-A-C-T-S. They will make a recommendation based on a financial information received from the family how much of a scholarship they should [00:15:00] get. In addition, in North Carolina for families under 60,000 in income, there’s a North Carolina scholarship program for $4,200. If they’re able to qualify for the 4,200, they only have another 800 to pay to enter the school.
Aaron Powell: How does that compare to what the public schools in North Carolina are spending per student?
Robert Luddy: Wake County is about $8,000 plus [00:15:30] capital expense. Our capital expense is included in our $5,000. We build on very high quality building. Because we’re able to get low cost financing, we only spend about 8% of revenue for our buildings. The public schools get bond money to build these buildings and they spend on average two and a half to three times per student for capital cost [00:16:00] than Thales would spend. I would make the case that our buildings are far superior in every way and especially in terms of aesthetics, beauty, order, sustainability, et cetera.
Aaron Powell: Then what’s the difference? When they’re spending two or three times as much per student for the building, what are they getting for that that your buildings don’t have?
Robert Luddy: They tend to build very sprawling [00:16:30] buildings which really run up the cost. They buy too much land. They build too many sports fields. They’ve got all types of atriums and other things that really have no value. We actually have small atriums in our buildings which are aesthetically very beautiful, but they’re not as costly as in the public sector. I would argue our buildings are much safer because they’re designed for safety. [00:17:00] They’re more sustainable. It’s all brick and steel. The public schools I think allow the architects free expression and that free expression cost the public school system a lot of money. Plus, you have parental groups that driving all types of would be nice things that they want in the building, but don’t help educate students.
Aaron Powell: Teacher compensation. One of the things I know from my wife who’s [00:17:30] an elementary school teacher for quite a long time and she worked in both private and public schools is that the public schools tended to pay better than the private schools do. Is that the case here? Are you paying roughly the same as what the public school teachers would be getting?
Robert Luddy: We pay the public school scale currently. In the longer term the big problem is tenure. The longer they stay, the more money they get. At some point we’re going to eliminate that tenure pay. [00:18:00] To some degree we’ve already done that and move into more pay for performance which obviously is not favored by some teachers. That will allow us and has allowed us to attract excellent teachers who want to be paid for performance and who don’t want to be working around teachers that are not performing well. Additionally, we only use one year contracts. Every year a teacher has to earn their contract for the following [00:18:30] year. No tenure.
Aaron Powell: Why Thales? Why the name Thales?
Robert Luddy: When we were originally going to start the school, we had a stand in name. It was Thomas Jefferson, but we knew we couldn’t get a trademark. We wanted to have a name that we could get a national trademark. My daughter did some research and came up Thales who was one of the first Greek scholars. I said, “Well, with classic education, this fits perfectly,” and that’s where it came from.
Trevor Burrus: As Aaron pointed [00:19:00] out earlier before we started recording.
Aaron Powell: Thales. It was just interesting to me because Thales, one of the stories about him is he didn’t marry for quite some time and Solon came and said why and he said it’s because he didn’t want to bother with children. He eventually broke down and he married and he adopted a child.
Robert Luddy: Reprieved.
Aaron Powell: Yes. On the licensing, you don’t require teachers to be licensed. Are any of your teachers licensed?
Robert Luddy: Many [00:19:30] of our teachers are licensed because they came out of the public system.
Aaron Powell: Okay.
Robert Luddy: I do have one other school that I started the same time as Moore Academy that is an independent Catholic school. High school only. I call it a boutique Catholic school. 200 students. They don’t have any licensed teachers there, but they do have three PhDs and a number of master’s degrees.
Aaron Powell: Is that something that there’s been skepticism about? A licensed teacher presumably has had some degree. In order to get that license, [00:20:00] you have to have some degree training in pedagogical technique. Not just training in your subject area like you would get with a PhD, but training in how to teach children. I can imagine a skepticism about turning your kid over to someone who knows math really well, but doesn’t necessarily know a lot about how to teach math.
Robert Luddy: We do our own training. For example, the Direct Instruction has its own methodology. In many ways you’re better off with someone [00:20:30] who’s not been trained as a teacher. Although we find that the teachers from the public system are able to acclimate to it if they so choose and can be very excellent direct instructors.
Trevor Burrus: Do your students have to take standardized tests?
Robert Luddy: In the public charter they do, but from the beginning we’ve used Iowa Basic Skills, PSAT and SAT as our primary markers because they’re nationally norm tests.
Trevor Burrus: Generally speaking [00:21:00] I guess that’s a broader question too about what regulations … I mean I’m sure there’s obviously a ton of regulations the government puts on Thales, but is there any baseline regulation of what you have to teach or what you have to assess or anything like that?
Robert Luddy: The private school law in North Carolina is very simple. It simply states that you have to notify the state that you’re going to start a school. You have to be in compliance [00:21:30] with all state laws, building safety, et cetera, and you’re required to have some type of norm testing and to publish it and that is it. There’s no licensing required, no curriculum. There’s virtually no bureaucratic rules for private schools.
Aaron Powell: What does the performance look like then? Are the kids at Thales outperforming the kids in the public school? Is it possible if you’re [00:22:00] using a different set of tests to know how they’re doing compared to the kids in public school?
Robert Luddy: The easiest test to mark them would be SAT graduates. Now we’re just beginning to graduate. This is only our second year to graduate Thales students.
Trevor Burrus: You mean people who went from kindergarten all the way through senior year?
Robert Luddy: They didn’t all go from kindergarten because remember we started in 08, but they started somewhere along the line. We’re averaging [00:22:30] in the range 1,200 SAT scores. In North Carolina, the average for the whole state is a little under 1,000. That’s 20% better than the state and then the local school system averages about 1,050. It’s certainly 15% better than Wake County which has the best demographics in the state.
Trevor Burrus: The fact that Thales is a nonprofit it’s interesting to me that [00:23:00] the profit motive can be useful in innovation as you’re well aware in cutting cost and things like this. Do the students for the cost that they’re paying, are you breaking even essentially on this or do you have to get donations or use your own funds? Is it sustainable without influx of cash just from what the students are bringing in?
Robert Luddy: It is sustainable with these comments. First of all, we do not do any fundraising [00:23:30] and we have a strict rule there’s no solicitations from funds from anybody for any reason. The rationale for that is we have to learn to live within our budget which I think is an important lifetime skill. When the facilities are built, I’ve been putting in about a third of the capital cost. The remainder of the capital cost and the interest are depreciated within the school operation. Typically, in the first two [00:24:00] to three years the schools lose money and I make up that money. I also put in scholarship money. Thereafter, we expect the schools to be sustainable and the cash flow.
Trevor Burrus: The for profit model though, is that something that you wouldn’t want to do in education? Is there some reason you chose the nonprofit model?
Robert Luddy: I would want to do it. The problem is the perception of for profit is so bad within the parental community. It’s [00:24:30] just very hard to do. It’s just one more battle you have to fight and essentially we run our … We wouldn’t run them any different where they to be for profit.
Trevor Burrus: That turns education into a business.
Robert Luddy: Well, our term is that we run schools like a business. To most teachers and to administrators, if you bring the word business around the school, they just can’t handle that at all. We’ve acclimated our team that schooling is a business. [00:25:00] A college is a business. As they acclimate to it, we run Thales exactly like we would run CaptiveAire from a budgetary standpoint, how we spend money, how we think about things.
Trevor Burrus: Now what about the parents? Are they more involved? Are they coming in with the public school having failed their children and kind of shown the light? I feel like [00:25:30] they would be more involved because they’re paying for it to some extent. You could maybe engender a little bit of disconnectedness with parents in the public school system. Is there a very strong community of parental involvement there?
Robert Luddy: Generally they are more involved. As you mentioned, they’re already paying a fee. They have to drop their students off. There’s no buses. You drop them off and pick them up. That itself creates an extraordinarily high level involvement with the student. I would say for the vast [00:26:00] majority of those parents, they’re very interested in their child’s education. They’re assisting them in every way possible. We look at that as kind of a team effort. You have the teacher, the parent and the student. We have to work together as a team. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it works very well at Thales.
Aaron Powell: What do the teachers think of it? Is it competitive to get a job teaching at Thales? Do the teachers like the [00:26:30] instruction and the way that the operation is run compared to what they used to in the public schools?
Robert Luddy: Most of the teachers absolutely love it. We might have some teachers that come from the public system and work a year or two and not like it. For the most part and teachers tell me this all the time, once they come to Thales and they have this beautiful ordered classroom and great curriculum [00:27:00] and interested parents, they would never go back to the public system. It would be a tremendous hardship for them to go backward. I’ve had many teachers tell me if for whatever reason I’m not working here in the future, I will not working in the public system.
Aaron Powell: You said that the teachers are on … There’s no tenure. They have to basically justify getting their contract again each year. What does the turnover look like? How [00:27:30] many teachers fail to make it onto the next year?
Robert Luddy: If you look at the overall turnover, it’s about the same as the public system. Somewhere in the range of 10 to 15% depending on the year. You have some certain number of teachers get transferred. They get pregnant and decide to stay home and then some are let go. Every year you have a turnover in that range which mostly I view as beneficial [00:28:00] because we found over the years that you can have really good people, but they aren’t the only good people in the world. Some turnover actually for an organization is beneficial because you’re bringing new talent and new thinking into the organization on a continuous basis.
Trevor Burrus: You mentioned that they drop the kids off which would seem to possibly … There’s no school buses. That would seem to be choose a specific type of parent who is able to do this. [00:28:30] The big criticism you hear from the supporters of public schools is that they have to take everyone and you don’t. Even just not having school buses and not going down to maybe some severe learning disability level and stuff just makes it easier on you, but it’s not really a comparable system.
Robert Luddy: Well, if you looked at our public charter school, it certainly is a comparable system because we take anybody. We have a higher number [00:29:00] of challenged students than the average school because it’s a very good school and parents want to get their students who are challenged into that school. At the Thales, we can take 95% of the students, maybe 97% and the ones that we can’t take may have severe behavior problems or they may have severe learning problems that require more like a one on four, one on six type of setting which is available in our area. [00:29:30] I think it’s a better place for those students to be.
Trevor Burrus: In terms of how, sort of the question of scaling this if we wanted to supplant the public school system or at least make it just 20% of students or something, we do have in terms of low income trying to provide certain services for all types of students and things like this. Do you think private education can do that too?
Robert Luddy: Absolutely. We have [00:30:00] many people on the margin. Some we help out. Some other people help out that are in our schools. I want to say just for a large number of students within our schools, the school is the best thing happening to them in their life. It’s going to give them a tremendous relative to what they would have had. We are providing an enormous service. If you look at the special needs students in public schools, you have to remember [00:30:30] every time they admit a special needs student, they receive additional money. As a result, the number of special needs students has expanded because they’re happy to identify you as special needs and take in more money. We want to go the other way.
We might say, “You may have special needs, but we think you can fit within our system and do quite well.”
Aaron Powell: Do you offer extra curricular activities?
Robert Luddy: We do. For example, starting [00:31:00] in the morning you can have early drop off as early as 7 a.m. After school we have a whole range of activities at the school that the parents can sign up for. They do have to pay additional money for that. They can leave their children at the school until almost 6 o’clock again if they pay extra money. We do not have football and we have somewhat on a de-emphasis on sports, but we have basketball, soccer and many [00:31:30] opportunities for these students to participate in sports. Academics comes first, not sports. I’ve made that clear from the beginning. As you know sometimes they’re in … Often they’re in conflict.
Trevor Burrus: What about theaters and music programs?
Robert Luddy: We have all of those. We have great music. In our Franklin Academy, we have one of the best bands in the state and have had for the last 10 years. We have a whole range of it. In [00:32:00] Thales, we have a program called The Luddy Institute of Technology. Essentially what it is it’s your elective and it’s four years of engineering. The students in the LIT program in their sophomore year will get a credential in SolidWorks which is a 3D design program exactly the same one we use at CaptiveAire. The opportunities for these students are absolutely enormous.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. I was reading about that and I [00:32:30] thought that was interesting because obviously with the Direct Instruction stuff that’s focused on K through 5, just reading and writing, arrhythmic and grammar and all those things. It seems that one of the possibilities of privatizing education is to have I mean more types of education. If you want to do engineering when you’re 15, if you want to do art, if you want to do music, would you be open to having more electives for students pursuing different paths in [00:33:00] life even beyond just the sort of STEM kind of path?
Robert Luddy: Actually that’s one of my goals and we’re doing as much as we can in that area. We don’t want to have just endless scattered electives. We want them to be directed towards something. It’s my belief that when a student finds something that they’re really interested in, it turns them on in life. It could be photography. It could be cooking, engineering, going down the list. We are going to introduce [00:33:30] the program. If you don’t choose LIT, you might choose the Luddy Leadership Program in the future which we’re just putting together. That’s going to provide a whole range of skills in management, personal finance, ability to communicate. We already have in place what we call the Luddy Outcomes. We have 15 outcomes beginning with integrity.
Mostly non-cognitive type of skills which we develop in the students. As they become [00:34:00] seniors and even before then, this is integral to their curriculum and instruction. It helps produce a very superior student. One last thing that we’re working on not fully introduced, we want to introduce students before they leave high school to as many and broad concepts as possible. We may not be able to get them to an expert level, but we will introduce the concept and stress it. As they begin their lifetime learning and their college [00:34:30] career, they’re aware of a wide depth and breadth of knowledge and information that they can take advantage of.
Aaron Powell: You mentioned you’ve had one or two years of graduating classes now?
Robert Luddy: This will be our second year of graduating class.
Aaron Powell: What percent of the kids in the first graduating class went on to college?
Robert Luddy: Well, the first graduating class was three students. By an audit they all when to UNC which is very hard to get into. [00:35:00] I would say that for the second graduating, it’s going to be the same thing. They’re all going to go to college.
Trevor Burrus: This is grouped in that there were three seniors or do you group it in that kind of way as graduation?
Robert Luddy: No. There were just three seniors because when you start a new school overtime, technically as you get into high school, you endure many drops until you prove out the school. [00:35:30] Those first graduating classes tend to be small. Then after two or three years they become normal.
Trevor Burrus: How big are the freshman class?
Robert Luddy: Well, in our sixth grade now we’re admitting almost 300 students this year.
Trevor Burrus: Interesting.
Robert Luddy: On the ninth grade, we will be in the range of 125 to 150 per school. We have two of those 6-12. Longer term we anticipate graduating in the range of 300 students from [00:36:00] our existing schools. Of course, we’re developing more schools.
Trevor Burrus: How many schools do you have?
Robert Luddy: We have six campuses open for Thales. We have another five in some stage of development. At least two which will be open next year.
Aaron Powell: Are all of these in North Carolina or are you expanding elsewhere?
Robert Luddy: At the current time they’re all in North Carolina, but we are looking throughout the southeast. We’ve had inquiries from around the country.
Aaron Powell: Are there states [00:36:30] in the region that you couldn’t expand into because the educational laws wouldn’t allow you to do what you’re doing?
Robert Luddy: I haven’t fully researched that yet, but for the most part in the southeast it would not be a problem. In particularly some of the Midwest and northeast states, we would not go in there based on regulation.
Trevor Burrus: That’s understandable. It seems like the long-term goal is [00:37:00] even bigger and bigger. The sky’s the limit. We can try to get people to understand the possibility of private education by showing it to them rather than writing more white papers when the kids want to do it for example.
Robert Luddy: Well, one thing I’ve learned is in many different ways you have to have models on the ground to convince people. If we can make this model large enough and even as a small model now, Thales has 2,200 students. It’s [00:37:30] had a tremendous impact on people’s thinking. For example, in Northern Wake County which is the Raleigh area, we estimate that one in four students is not in the public system. If we want back to 98, that would have 1 in 12. Now it’s one in four in that area. In Wake County, one in five students is no longer in the public system. There’s a tremendous impact from even one good school. [00:38:00] We have a professor at North Carolina State University Dr. Bart Danielson.
He’s done studies that indicate that a really good school and it could be public, private, Christian, et cetera, will attract parents and development at a higher propensity than a really good business. If you look at economic development and community development, [00:38:30] really good schools are the driver rather than anything else.
Aaron Powell: How much room for I guess variants in teaching methodologies do you see? You have a very specific philosophy and instruction style that you’re using at Thales. Are there say other private schools, other networks of private schools are doing similar things to you in terms of business [00:39:00] model, but are adopting wildly different models?
Robert Luddy: There are. I think one of the things with private schools ideally you want thousands of good models. As many as possible. Even if you look within our school and you talk about Direct Instruction which is very formal, we went to five different instructors, you will the differences in those instructors doing approximately the same [00:39:30] thing, but using their own skills and talents to help the students learn. If you move into the Classic Curriculum, what we don’t want the teacher to do is just make up their own curriculum because we have to know what those students are being taught. They can use their own personal skills to help student learn that curriculum. That’s the real value of the teacher.
Trevor Burrus: What do you think is the ideal policy space for education right now in the [00:40:00] sense of having worked in this in a variety of different ways? Should we be going for vouchers? Should we be pushing charters as an entry? Should we be pushing for tax credits or should we just be pushing for the government to get out of it entirely?
Robert Luddy: In the ideal world, the government out of it entirely. Charters I view as a transitional idea which has helped changed and improve education, but it’s only transitional because given enough time the bureaucrats [00:40:30] with destroy the charters. Any type of tax credit or free voucher that is available is helpful, ESAs. Very often with these vouchers they put another prescription on them of all the things that you have to do to get the voucher. We would not participate in a program of that nature because any restriction on freedom and we know this from our country, we know it from companies, [00:41:00] restrictions on freedom reduce the possibility of improvement.
This idea we’re going to give you a voucher, but we’re going to tell you what you should do, they’re really trying to put you back in the same box as the public school. Again we would not participate and I know many, many private schools will not participate in that kind of system.
Trevor Burrus: Even with the improvement model, how do you respond to sort of the biggest critique I think? I know big supporters of public schools [00:41:30] who don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that schools could become better and more dynamic if we had private school, but they really have a problem with the distribution. They think that poor people will be left behind. We’ve already talked about you still have to pay a fair amount to get into your school. You have to be able to drive your kid. Pay extra for extra curricular activities, things like that. Some people just are very offended by that inequality that they see in the system.
Robert Luddy: I think that is [00:42:00] exactly upside down. Think this through. The top 25% or 35% of the students in the public school that are doing the best are the ones coming from the highest income areas and the nicest areas to live. The underserved are the two-thirds below them. Typically, you will see that’s the group that’s going to move to the charter, to the private school if they can get in, the use of a voucher. That’s the opportunity [00:42:30] and way out for them. If it weren’t for that top third that were in these cushy public schools getting everything their way for free, the public school system would have long since collapsed.
If they really want to help the people at the bottom and there’s so much evidence to this, there was a scholarship you probably remember 10 years ago where they required the poorest people to put in 800 or $1,000 and they scholarship the rest. The [00:43:00] program was way over subscribed. I’ll make the case that the poorest people want a good opportunity for their children just like the rich people do, but it’s not provided for them. These people who say, “Well, we’re going to protect and defend the poor people and we’re going to put them in terrible schools,” they’re the source of the problem, not the solution.
Trevor Burrus: It seems like your experience in charters and private education [00:43:30] is probably very personally rewarding to you. Is that the case? Do you get a lot of good feedback about how you feel that you’re helping people out? Because you already had a business. You’re already doing stuff, but then you decided to add this to your life. It just made you busier if nothing else, but you get a lot out of it.
Robert Luddy: It’s the most rewarding thing that I’ve done in my life because I can help control the outcome. Interesting comments that I get from parents [00:44:00] and this is very typical, they will come and say, “You haven’t just change the life of our children. You’ve changed the life of our families.” Because one of the things that we want to do is influence the family to move to higher academic levels, higher achievement levels. Children have a huge impact on their parents. As they learn things, they at least influence their parents.
I had one example where [00:44:30] a young lady had her daughter in kindergarten for half a year and she told her husband, “We need to up our game because five years from now our child’s going to be learning and doing things that we don’t even understand.” These are professional people.
Trevor Burrus: We talked about the growth possibilities. We talked about where this is going. Are you seeing more shifting of attitudes towards public schools even across the nation and [00:45:00] then secondly, are you looking in your 10 year or 20 year window, 25, 50, 100 schools just pushing it as far as you can possibly go?
Robert Luddy: I’m seeing a tremendous different in attitude in the almost 20 years that I’ve been engaged with this. If you went back to 97 in Wake County, very few people knew what a charter school was. When I introduced it, nobody knew what it was. [00:45:30] The idea of school choice barely existed. Today if you look at Northern Wake County, almost every parent seems to want their child into one of these schools of choice. Where there was one charter school that we started, there’s now seven charter schools. Everyone has a waiting list. Tremendous shift in the attitude of parents and a tremendous realization. If you went back in Wake County, North Carolina [00:46:00] 10 years ago, they tell themselves it’s the greatest school system on the planet.
They said it over and over again. I haven’t heard that in the last five years because nobody … Well, initially they believed it, but in the modern times nobody would believe that. I’m thinking that we’re going to see 20% school choice and it’s going to go to 25% and it’s going to go to 30%. It’s going to vary around the country. I think in the longer [00:46:30] term you’re going to see very large numbers of parents moving to school choice.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.