A Private School on a Public Scale
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Are private schools the sole domain of blue bloods, or should they — can they — be available to all Americans? That’s a major challenge faced by the school-choice community nationwide, not only from a practical standpoint, but from a messaging perspective as well.

A small test is being conducted in North Carolina that could prove to be a model for national success. Located in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metro region, Thales Academy is a K-12 college preparatory private school that is tearing down the private-school cost barrier. What’s more, the schools are showing that quality instruction and a high price tag need not go hand-in-hand.

Although Wake County boasts some of the best public schools in the nation (a point that local residents will debate endlessly), Thales Academy has local public-school zealots in a tizzy. The combination of quality instruction and comparatively inexpensive tuition are the main driving factors in its growth. Parents here in Wake County are on waiting lists for magnet and charter schools. Demand far exceeds supply.

It’s not hard to see, too, how Thales Academy differs from other private schools. Thales costs $5,300 per year for kindergarten through fifth grade and $6,000 per year for sixth through 12th grades. That’s a standout deal, particularly for high school. Estimates peg the average high-school private-school tuition at $11,220 per year.

Thales is the brainchild of Robert Luddy, an entrepreneur and owner of CaptiveAire, a manufacturer of kitchen ventilation systems. The genesis of the school came about when long waiting lines at Franklin Academy — Luddy’s charter school — elicited the need for a more creative solution.

Indeed, for years Luddy waited in frustration as the state’s General Assembly (then under the control of Democrats) failed to lift an arbitrary 100-school cap on charter schools. New Republican majorities in the legislature have since done so, but the need for Thales has only grown, even as more charter-school options have become available.

“In America, there are many great private schools, but most fail the low-cost test,” Luddy notes. “Virtually every state could adopt the Thales model. Some legal and bureaucratic challenges exist. We have not researched the laws in every state, but since private education has been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925, it is definitely doable.”

While the average to build a new high school in Wake County approaches the $100 million mark, the cost of an average Thales Academy (building and land) is only $4 million for a K-5 school on four acres and $10 million for a 6-12 school on 10 acres.

The 6-12 grade schools include a soccer field and gymnasium, but Thales leaders purposefully keep extraneous costs to a minimum. Kent Misegades, director of development for Thales, notes that eliminating the extraneous frills common in public schools — such as cafeterias, large athletic fields, mini-stadiums, huge parking lots, and bus transportation — keep costs under control. He estimates that, overall, Thales’ operating costs are 40 percent less than those of the Wake County Public School System.

Although parents are concerned about cost, the overarching decision point for them is often academics. Thales Academy uses a teaching approach known as Direct Instruction for grades kindergarten through fifth. The tactic has led to promising results: Thales students consistently score above grade level on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

Thales also integrates a strong workforce development component into their curriculum. Through the Luddy Institute of Technology, students “take electives in fundamental engineering, earn a Certified Solidworks Association certification, and complete an industrial internship.”

In recent years, the newly Republican-controlled state legislature (now in GOP hands after over a century of Democratic dominance) has given charter and private schools new opportunities to connect with students and families who need their services. In 2013, the legislature approved (and Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law) a bill that provides scholarships up to $4,200 annually toward a private school education for children from low-income and working-class households.

School choice advocates celebrated a significant victory in December when the N.C. Supreme Court allowed the application process to proceed for the 2015-2016 school year, pending further appeals.

With Thales’s $5,300 price point for elementary school and $6,000 price tag for middle to high-school, the scholarship would nearly pay a student’s entire way. For low-income students — disproportionately represented by minorities — that opportunity is key for their future welfare. In most instances, the local public schools simply aren’t meeting their needs.

Thales itself has a scholarship program in place to help needy students. Private donors provide funding that supports around 10 percent of Thales enrollees, generally covering a portion of their annual tuition.

When it opens its seventh school in Apex in 2015, Thales will be the largest independent school system in North Carolina. Currently, Thales Academy has 1,470 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Each year, the schools have experienced an average growth rate of 15 percent. Each school is limited in growth to approximately 400 to 500 students, which leaders at Thales have found to be the optimal range.

For a growth model, Thales typically “incubates” a new school in grades 1 through 3 and recruits adequate teaching staff. It then expands to the other grades.And its backers say the model seems replicable elsewhere as well. “We see no reason why Thales academies couldn’t be established in any community in the U.S. where there exists true support for school choice through the private sector,” Misgades says.

Indeed, Thales solves one of the most significant hurdles that private schools face — the cost barrier. Luddy’s goal is to make private schools an option for average middle-class and even working-class families.

What lessons does Thales Academy have to teach us? One of the key takeaways is that a mixture of high-quality instruction with a low-cost, no-frills mentality is a recipe that parents are flocking to. It’s also one that draws heated opposition from liberals, who fear that parental choice will threaten their stranglehold on the education bureaucracy.

The big news, of course, is that it will.

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