Bob Luddy offers Wake County another school choice

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comApril 5, 2012 

Businessman and education entrepreneur Bob Luddy in mid-July will open another private school, which he’s calling a useful addition to the K-12 education marketplace in Wake County.

Located on Fox Road in North Raleigh, the $5 million Thales Academy Raleigh will make a temporary school permanent and bring to more than 850 the number of students being educated in the three Thales private nonprofits Luddy has started. Having made his fortune in heating and air-conditioning, Luddy has spent years founding alternatives to what he calls an excessively centralized public school system.

In addition to the Thales (pronounced THAY-lees) academies, he has started three Franklin Academy charter schools and the St.Thomas More Catholic high school. Luddy is expanding education options in Wake County when the public schools system has struggled with political turbulence, sweeping changes in student assignment and concerns that some parents are ready to look outside the system.

Kevin Hill, the Wake school board chairman and a Democrat, said, “I have heard parents saying, ‘We are going to leave the public schools,’ because they are not happy either with the plan or with how it’s played out in their family,” Hill said. “I am disappointed in that. I have a strong belief in the public school system.”

Luddy says that more private school competition will make all schools healthier, just as businesses grow stronger when they vie for customers.

“One observation that anybody could make is that the public schools are under more pressure to perform,” Luddy said.

The $5,000 annual fee for the Thales schools is much less than rates at tradition-rich Raleigh private schools such as Ravenscroft, where it costs families $13,450 to send a child to kindergarten and $17,450 for grades 1-5, according to posted rates.

Threat to public schools?

School board member Chris Malone, who received a $2,000 campaign contribution from Luddy during his successful 2009 race, is an enthusiastic backer of the new private school and of competition among schools in general.

“This is the land of opportunity, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Malone said during a mobile phone interview as he campaigned door-to-door for the Republican nomination for a state House seat. “If it works, God bless them and good luck to them.

“It’s no threat to the public schools; the parents are still paying taxes to the public school system.”

However, that point of view is being picked apart by some public school supporters. Schools aren’t businesses, said Democratic school board member Jim Martin; the system doesn’t get to pick and choose among students, as businesses get to select raw materials and make other decisions based on access to necessary products.

“I hate to refer to children as raw materials, but in public education in particular, you don’t get to choose your raw materials,” Martin said. “We take all the children and try to maximize learning for all children. That doesn’t fit the market model.”

Martin said that many private schools have the option of being selective in the students they choose. Luddy responded to the “cream of the crop” argument: “It could not be entirely true, because we do provide scholarships; we have taken care of a lot of needy students.”

How to measure success

Luddy said Thales’ students outperform national peers on standardized tests. But there’s a catch to the comparison, said Tim Simmons, of the nonprofit Wake Education Partnership, which backs the new student assignment plan. The question, Simmons said, is how Thales students from specific backgrounds would fare against students from the same backgrounds attending other systems. There’s not enough data separated out in that fashion to make the comparison, he said.

“In general if you look at SAT scores and that kind of thing, income matters more than whether the student attends public or private schools,” he said

Atmosphere of tradition

The North Raleigh school, named for an early Greek philosopher, remains under construction. But Luddy says the atmosphere and intent is designed to mirror the other Thales schools in Wake Forest and Apex. In a Thales school, he said, classical music plays, students are attired according to a dress code, no police oversee the hallways, and the decor reinforces tenets such as the wisdom of the country’s founding fathers.

“What we want to do at Thales is character development that’s equal to academic development,” Luddy said. “Things that we learn when we are young have a huge impact on the way we live our lives.”

In addition to traditional educational techniques, Thales offers high-tech features such as an iPad computer lab, interactive electronic whiteboards in every classroom and Apple TVs. The subject matter can vary from public-school teachings based on Luddy’s beliefs on matters including evolution.

“I would say I certainly believe in intelligent design,” he said. “At Thales, we are not teaching religion, but we try to teach reasonable history.”

According to the school, Thales schools help parents cultivate “virtuous, critical-thinking, compassionate student citizens.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929