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The Value of Having (School) Choices

Over the last decade, we have seen some major shifts in the public school system. Curriculum has been redesigned to accommodate Common Core standards, replacing tried and true teaching techniques, and students are being taught about LGBTQ+ ideology instead of learning about the founding documents of our country. Many parents are starting to consider alternative options for their child’s education, including the private and charter schools that North Carolina has to offer.

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Robert Luddy, entrepreneur and founder of Thales Academy, to discuss some of the educational options in North Carolina and the many advantages they offer.

This episode is a part of a series highlighting the school choice movement across North Carolina. Tune in each week to learn more!

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Transcript: The Value of Having (School) Choices

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As a new school year approaches, we are excited to bring you a series of interviews that will look at the many phases of education here in North Carolina, which is considered a school choice leader in the nation.

Today we’re joined by Bob Luddy, a successful North Carolina business owner whose dedication to quality education led him to begin several different schools, one of the state’s first charter schools, an independent Catholic school, and most recently, Thales Academy, a private school that currently boasts 14 campuses in three states. He joins us today to take a closer look at the important role private schools play in North Carolina’s educational landscape. Bob Luddy, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

ROBERT LUDDY: Traci, it’s a delight to be with you today.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk first about why you decided to focus your philanthropic efforts on, of all things, K through 12 education.

ROBERT LUDDY: One of the things I noticed in the early and mid-90s was that while some students did okay in public education, many students were left behind. And I felt like they were being denied the American dream. So I wanted to do something about it, I tried various school reforms, not very successfully. And that led me to the Franklin Academy Public Charter School.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You experienced both the charter, then, and private schools. Lay out the different roles that those types of schools play, as you see it, in North Carolina’s educational landscape.

ROBERT LUDDY: I’ve always viewed charter schools as a transitional opportunity. So the idea came up in Minnesota in the early 90s. Most of the states adopted some form of charters. And while they are a major improvement, because it allows for private initiative, there are also constraints from government regulation. And those constraints can be more difficult over a period of time. Whereas in private schools, in North Carolina, there’s no restrictions whatsoever, except that you have to follow all the laws of the state of North Carolina. So it allows for maximum creativity and initiative and improvement, where charters are a little bit more restrictive.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, clearly, since you are putting a lot of energy into the private school sector, talk about why you think that was an important direction for you to go, and also why you think parents and teachers are choosing private schools here in our state.

ROBERT LUDDY: Interestingly, around 2006, there weren’t any more charters available. So that’s what initially led me toward private, but as I became more involved in it I realized that we could do a better job in private schools because we’ve kind of eliminated all the restrictions by the state that had developed over many, many years. And that’s proven to be a very sound initiative.

So, for example, we use direct instruction, which is a phonics-based method of teaching reading. Classic curriculum that’s been around forever, but it’s been abandoned by too many schools, and we can maintain discipline and order more correctly in the private school than in the public setting.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you think those are the same reasons that parents are choosing private schools? Are there others?

ROBERT LUDDY: You know, initially, I think if you went back into the 90s, parents chose private schools, primarily faith-based, or they thought they were going to get a superior education, or both. If you fast forward to today, there’s a lot of propaganda being pushed at students in public schools. And there’s a large number of parents that are just trying to escape that propaganda and then concurrently gain a good academic education. So it’s a number of factors, and even safety today is more of a factor. It is generally perceived to be private schools are much safer than public schools.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned about the classic curriculum, direct instruction, phonics, those are some things I think if you’re a little bit older, I’m very familiar with. Talk a little bit more about why going back to that type of instruction is very important.

ROBERT LUDDY: You know, in North Carolina, along with most of the other states, they developed, I think, going back to the 80s, this idea of whole language. So they stopped teaching phonics, and the result was currently, about half the students coming out of the public system don’t read on grade level, and that’s because they don’t understand phonics. Phonics gives you the basis of understanding and pronouncing words, and spelling words even that you’re not familiar with. So direct instruction takes it to another level where they stress pronunciation, phonics, continuous review, memorization, pretty much what school systems did over the last 100 years prior to the introduction of whole language.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Why do you suppose there is this push to get away from some of those tried and true methods?

ROBERT LUDDY: That’s the million-dollar question. I think that universities try to be creative. But the problem is, in our business and industry, when we try to be creative, we do extensive testing to see if it makes any sense. In the case of many of these ideas, like whole language or common core, there’s absolutely no real testing. So bad ideas can come into the market under the guise of creativity.

I think the whole idea of stressing creativity over basic teaching methodology has been a huge mistake. There are some who believe that charter schools should only be commissioned if they can show they have a creative approach to education. And my approach is more like we would’ve done things 100 years ago. Structured discipline, love of students, learn to mastery, use all the basic techniques such as phonics that make sense a thousand years from now,

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You know, you’ll also mention the number of students who are not reading on grade level, you would get the impression from state and national leaders that it was due to COVID. But it sounds like to me that you say it is not.

ROBERT LUDDY: No, it became far worse under COVID, but it existed a long time before that. As a matter of fact, you can go back to 1983. The report to Reagan, the Nation at Risk. There’s been school reform after school reform in North Carolina dating back into the 90s. And none of them have worked because they bring untried solutions. Recently I noted that North Carolina is retraining 44,000 teachers to learn and teach phonics. So think, after 30 years of failure, they’re finally going to make a reversal. But that might take 20 more years.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So why do you suppose you can make your schools safer, you mentioned safety as something that you guys were able to handle better.

ROBERT LUDDY: I think it begins with discipline in the school. So if a student is of concern, we take action. Ultimately, if it’s a student that we cannot manage, we can push them out of the school, whereas in the public system, that’s more difficult to do. So if the students are well managed, and then you move to the facility, we do everything possible in the facility, for example, all exterior doors are locked. We have cameras, interior and exterior, and they are monitored continuously by our administrative team. Our teachers are paying attention and resolute for problems that may occur.

So we do everything physically possible. But we don’t generate problems internally. And you see this in a number of schools, those problems germinated in the family and in the school, and then they turned into a disaster. We’re paying attention to that continuously. To me, that is probably even a bigger factor than all the safety precautions, all of which are important, but making sure that you’re not generating problems or people that are so frustrated that they’re going to do something really seriously bad.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk a little bit about school policies. You’ve been so involved in politics and policy over the years, and I know you mentioned the restrictions, many restrictions over charter schools, which of course, we know are public schools. So talk a little bit about, from your perspective, what some of the most important changes in North Carolina’s school choice policies have been over the last 30 years.

ROBERT LUDDY: If you go back 30 years, essentially, we had no school choice. So in 1996, the charter school bill was passed. That was the beginning but it was restricted to 100 charter schools. Somewhere way later, I think it was 2010, that restriction was lifted, and in 2015, we had the beginning of the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarships for private schools. That was a big step forward and had to go through the Supreme Court, the best policy the state could have would be to have all private schools and stay out of the policy business because today, parents are much more informed than they would have been years ago. There’s homeschoolers that have a myriad of curriculum and organizations. There’s a whole range of private schools, there’s books written on this. So I think what the state needs to do is trust the parents, and the parents care more about their children than anybody on the planet, and they’re going to do everything they can for a great outcome. So if there’s some exceptions where the outcome wasn’t great, that’s not the purview of the state, it’s still the parents. So any policy you need is to trust the parents, liberate education, let the private sector take it over, and it will be stellar over time.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so you’re suggesting, then, that we do away with public schools altogether? And I can just hear people saying it’s going to create socio-economic and racial barriers. Talk about that. Why would you see that as not being the case?

ROBERT LUDDY: Well, as I understand it, prior to 1920, there was no requirement for compulsory education, you had something like 95% of the individuals from the US were literate at some range. It ignores the fact that the private sector has every capability of teaching every single student. I mean, in direct instruction, the essential model says we can teach any student to read. Some may take a little longer to teach than others, but every student can learn to read. With only 50% of the students in public school reading on grade level, that’s a prima facia case for saying the failure rate is enormously high. If their failure rate was 2%, you can say, well, that’s great. 50% is completely unacceptable. And what we know with private initiatives, people will stay on it until they make it happen. And I would suggest that all students would be better off under private initiative, versus the think tanks and the government and the policies, all of which have been a failure.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk to parents who might be listening to this and thinking to themselves, if I could swing the money, I would love to have my child in a private school, how would you advise them to move forward?

ROBERT LUDDY: I think they have to look at everything. So they can get a recommendation from other parents, but that’s not final because those parents may have a different child, a different subset of values. I would look at test scores if they’re available, I would talk to a lot of parents, I would go to the school and look physically, what does the school look like? What does the curriculum look like? So I would do as much investigation as possible. And I think it’s generally true when parents do that, they normally make the best decision for their own children.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Are there other things, besides what you’ve already mentioned, that you think North Carolina needs to do regarding education policy, as it relates to private schools?

ROBERT LUDDY: The best policy for private schools is to do nothing. And if you look at the current statute, private schools fall under the Department of Administration. And the only requirement is that you follow all state laws, that you notify the Department of Administration that you’re opening a private school and that you send your test scores to the Department of Administration, you know, a nationally normed test score. You could add to that, that you publish them online so that everybody knows what those scores are and what kind of testing you took. But that’s about it. If you think of any competitive industry, over time, the stronger providers are going to prevail. And you will see the same thing happen in schools.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you have some recommendations for more resources, where people who are listening can learn more about educational approaches and policies as you’ve discussed them, and where our listeners, of course, can learn more about Thales Academy,

ROBERT LUDDY: Just today, The Thales Way book was introduced, so Thales Way states in some great detail exactly what we do at Thales Academy. It’s available on Amazon online for maybe $10. Also, if you Google educational choice, there’s a myriad of organizations that write on school choice, that provide recommendations, that have steady reports. So the information is all out there on the web. The purpose of The Thales Way is to say this is what Thales does. There’s other ways of teaching, but this is what we do, and this is what we think is important.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right, Bob Luddy, founder of Thales Academy, a private school that has 14 campuses in three states, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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