When Bob Luddy opened Thales Academy in 2007, he wanted to offer families a private-school education at an affordable price.
Nine years later, Thales has grown into a network of six schools in Wake County, including a new Knightdale campus set to open in July. On Friday, Thales graduated its first seniors – three students.
Future graduating classes will be larger. Thales has more than 1,700 students across its campuses. The Rolesville campus, one of two locations that offer middle school and high school classes, has 300 students this year but will enroll 425 next school year, said Melissa Edwards, the school’s administrator.
Thales, and its success, speak to the heart of the national debate about the future of education. Some people, including Luddy, argue that education is better left to the private sector that can encourage competition and ultimately offer affordable and high-quality schools. Others say more resources should go to public schools because they face federal and statewide accountability standards that private and charter schools do not.
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“It’s the nature of bureaucracies,” Luddy said, arguing that government should not play a role in education. “Bureaucracies are the worst form of management.”
Luddy, 70, founded CaptiveAire Systems in Raleigh in 1976 with a $1,300 budget. The company, which makes kitchen ventilation and fire suppression equipment for restaurants, now employs more than 1,000 people and will record $400 million in sales this year, he said.
Luddy, a prominent donor to conservative political candidates, said his business know-how helped him become an education leader. In 1998, he founded Franklin Academy, a popular and high-performing charter school in Wake Forest. Three years later, he opened Saint Thomas More Academy, a private school in Raleigh.
Thales Academy is his largest education venture. Families pay $4,800 a year in tuition in the lowest grades and $6,000 a year for middle and high school. That’s cheaper than many private schools across the country and in Wake County.
Nationally, the average tuition for high school private schools was about $12,900 a year for the 2015-16 school year, according to Private School Review, which tracks data on private schools across the country. In Wake, the average was $11,495.
Luddy said the lower tuition at Thales Academy has helped attract students, including some from families who might not have been able to afford private school otherwise.
North Carolina has spent $12 million this year on Opportunity Scholarships, which are given to lower-income families who want to move their children from public to private schools.
Most of that money – about $11 million – was used to send students to Christian, Islamic and other faith-based schools. About $800,000 went to secular schools like Thales Academy.
Under the Republican-led state Senate’s budget proposal, North Carolina would provide Opportunity Scholarships to an additional 2,000 students per year starting in 2017. The program’s budget would increase by $10 million each year through 2027.
Luddy said it’s good for families to have education choices.
“Give vouchers to parents and let them decide which school they want,” he said, adding that fewer than 10 Thales students currently have Opportunity Scholarships. He hopes more families will use the scholarships to attend.
Critics of the vouchers say the state should not divert funds from public schools.
Public education is “the cornerstone of our democracy,” said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First NC, a statewide group that advocates for public education.
“We are failing our public schools,” Brannon said. “They’re underfunded.”
She criticized private and charter schools for a lack of across-the-board standards. Charter schools, for example, are not required to offer students free or reduced-price meals or bus service. That can lead to less diversity.
“There’s no way of holding them accountable,” Brannon said.
Franklin Academy, which serves students in K-12, earned a 79.5 percent passing rate on state exams during the 2014-15 school year. That was higher than Wake County’s 66.7 percent passing rate.
This school year, 83.3 percent of Franklin Academy students are white. That compares to 47.5 percent of students in Wake County schools overall.
‘How to think’
The three seniors who graduated from Thales Academy on Friday plan to attend UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall.
James Bury said he wants to study business and hopes to go to law school. In 2009, he left a private religious school in Raleigh and started at Thales as a sixth-grader.
“There’s a lot less religious teaching here,” Bury said. “I like it. It opened my mind.”
Fellow graduate Evan Gales, who wants to study biology, agreed. He began at Thales in the seventh-grade after attending a private Christian school.
“They teach me how to think, not what to think,” he said of Thales. He added: “It’s a better education, and it’s cheaper.”
Before students can enroll at Thales, they take an academic test, and the school considers previous report cards and teacher evaluations.
“We make sure we are a good fit for them,” said Edwards, the school administrator.
Owens: 919-829-8955; @eowens12