by David Safier
NOTE: Since Imagine School at Superstition made news by firing 11 of its 14 teachers, I've been writing about it, reading up on Imagine Schools and talking to people who know more than I do. This is the third in a series of posts trying to make sense of the nation's largest charter school corporation which has drawn more controversy for its practices and low student achievement scores than any other (Here are the first and second posts). What I write may be incomplete or incorrect in places. If you have information to add, please leave comments or email me at email@example.com. I keep all email correspondence confidential.
Dennis Bakke, Imagine Schools' founder and CEO, began his career in the energy business. After helping guide energy deregulation through the Carter Administration, he began AES (Applied Energy Services). AES expanded at breakneck speed, using deregulation and huge long term loans to buy power plants around the world. When ENRON, another company that made its fortune by taking advantage of energy deregulation, imploded, AES buckled under the weight of its loan obligations, and its stock price tumbled from $70 to $1. Bakke fled the corporation a very rich man with his faith in the expansionist model and his business acumen still intact.
Bakke decided to use some of his wealth to invest in charter schools, a deregulated corner of government funded public schooling where he could put his expansionist model to work. He had absolutely no background in education, though his wife had been a teacher. He relied on the belief that a master of free enterprise like himself could make any business venture work. Business is business, he must have figured, whether it's power plants or schools. [Note from an educator: The business of education is not business. It's education.]
In 2004, Bakke bought a failing charter school company and renamed it Imagine Schools. Instead of taking a few years to learn how schools work educationally and financially, he rushed headlong into what he knew best -- business expansion. Bakke began with the 25 schools he purchased. The next year, he opened 9 new schools. Four years later, his educational empire had grown by 48 schools. At 73 schools, nearly triple the original number, Imagine is the largest charter school corporation in the country. It appears from reading Imagine's annual reports, Bakke actually opened more than 48 schools during those years, but some Imagine schools closed while others defected, deciding to sever ties with Imagine and go it alone.
Imagine has stayed at about 73 schools since 2008. The economic meltdown in the last year of the Bush administration helped slow the corporation's growth. It continued to open a few new schools, but those were balanced out by schools that closed or left the fold. At the end of this school year, 6 Imagine schools in St. Louis were closed by the Missouri Board of Education because of poor academic achievement, so unless it can open 6 new schools elsewhere, Imagine will have fewer campuses next year.
Slower, more thoughtful and deliberate growth might have resulted in a more stable Imagine empire with better funded schools and more academically successful students, but that's not Bakke's style, as Imagine's Annual Reports reveal.The reports give modest praise to Imagine Schools' educational accomplishments -- and, to be honest, modest praise is more than many of the schools deserve -- but they bestow lavish praise on Imagine's progress in starting new schools. In 2008, Bakke wrote about the biggest challenge for the year ahead:
THE YEAR AHEAD
Our biggest challenge is the start up and maturation of the large number of new schools.
In 2009, he brags about Imagine's most impressive accomplishments, which have nothing to do with the success of its students.
NEW SCHOOL DEVELOPMENT
Probably most impressive of our accomplishments is our opening of 27 new campuses in 2008 in nine states and the District of Columbia.
And when it comes to Imagine's "greatest innovations and achievements," they once again have nothing to do with quality education.
This year, some of the greatest innovations and achievements in Imagine Schools have come in the area of Economic Sustainability.
Dennis Bakke is a man who knew little, and has learned little, about education. All he seems to know is how to start new schools, then try and figure out ways to make them economically viable. The education part is somehow supposed to take care of itself.