Libertarian businessman hopes to open new private schools in Central Fla.

Private school entrepreneur Bob Luddy

Bob Luddy is a longtime businessman who’s become an education entrepreneur.

A libertarian businessman known for his group of private nonprofit Pre-K-12 schools in North Carolina is considering opening two similar schools in Central Florida.

Bob Luddy is the owner of CaptiveAire, one of the nation’s leading manufacturer of commercial kitchen ventilation systems.

Luddy told Reason magazine he became interested in education when he learned at many of his hires at CaptiveAire did not have the basic science and math skills to succeed on the job.

He is also the founder of Thales Academy, a network of low-cost private schools.

The network has six schools but Luddy said he wants it to grow. He said he is in the early stages of discussions about a potential private school in Groveland.

“It is a growing area,” he said in an interview. “We have a manufacturing plant in Groveland in Lake County and found that to be a nice area down there.”

School district officials across Central Florida are grappling with a growing student population. Nearly half of Lake County’s schools are at capacity. Future projections do not look much better. Officials estimate 17 out of 42 schools will be over capacity by 2022. Neighboring districts are growing, too.

Luddy said he is also looking at opening a school in Orlando. Discussions on the schools are preliminary, but he said he hopes to open one of them in 2018 or 2019.

Lake County School Board member Bill Mathias said he has worked with Luddy in business relations for the past 30 years. 

“I know of his personal integrity and commitment to education,” he said.

Expanding educational opportunities

The idea for a network of nonprofit schools, known as Thales Academy, originated in 2006 when a group of parents approached Luddy asking for better educational options for their children.

At the time, Luddy had already founded Franklin Academy, a public charter K-12 school, and St. Thomas More Academy, a private high school, school documents show. However, space was limited at both schools.

In 2007, the first Thales Academy for Pre-K to 12th grades was founded and since then five other academies have opened in North Carolina.

In addition to the proposed schools in Florida, Luddy has five additional campuses in development stages in North Carolina.

“Our goal is to build an American education model that develops students to their highest possible potential at the lowest possible cost,” he said.

Luddy said he chose to focus on private schools because the institutions are not restricted.

“The basic entrepreneur is to look for the best ideas,” he said.

By contrast, he said public schools face rules and restrictions that limit their ability to execute the best possible program. Luddy expressed interest in Florida’s tax credit scholarships, which remains the largest private school choice program in the country. It helps nearly 98,000 low-income and working pay private school tuition.  Step Up For Students administers the program, which publishes this blog. The program supports some of the most disadvantaged students in the state. The typical parent using the program is a single mother earning less than $25,000 a year.

Thales Academy offers scholarships for some of its students who face financial hardship. It calculates eligibility through a formula that examines income, tax documents and a family’s expected contribution, according to the academy’s website.

In 2016, Luddy awarded 120 scholarships to students.

Luddy was influenced by economist Alfred Hirschman’s 1970 treatise on political science, Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Hirschman argued that when people are frustrated with an institution, they have two choices. They can speak up (voice) or they can leave (exit). If they have the option to leave, their voices may be stronger. Luddy told Reason he “conceived of Thales (to) give families ‘exit.’”

In other words, he set out to create an affordable alternative to public schools, and believes creating alternatives might give families more power over the education system.

For the last 150 years, Luddy said, most parents have had to rely on the government for education.

“It works for some percentage of students,” he said. “For too many of them it does not work. The public schools are heavily regulated. We are interested in providing a strong, basic education that is free of politics and current political wind: one that develops the character and integrity of every student.”

A growing network

Overall, there are 2,200 students at Thales schools. In the last year, enrollment increased by 500 students.

Luddy emphasizes efficiency.

“We have low administrative overhead,” he said. “We do not have all these curriculum directors and we build a great quality building at a reasonable cost.”

Tuition at Luddy’s schools averages between $4,800 and $6,000, depending on the grade level.

Describing his schools as high-performing, Luddy said the teaching is based on direct instruction. It requires all students of one single skill level to be placed in a classroom together and “taught at a pace and level appropriate for their abilities.” The learning method is personalized to a student’s needs and mastery based, meaning students will not progress to the next level until they have mastered each concept.

“This is a highly-proven methodology of teaching all the basic skills students will need for higher-order learning,” Luddy said.

Students at Thales Academy have scored above the national average on preliminary college entrance exams.

Test data from the school show that in the 2015-16 year, shows students in 11th grade scored 1146 on the PSAT, compared to the national mean total of 1009.  And the class of 2016’s average SAT score was 2173. On average, Thales students test in the 97th-99th national percentile on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills each year.

A parent’s viewpoint

Six of Allison Dooley’s children have attended Luddy’s schools from 2012 to 2016. They only recently stopped attending because the family moved out of the area.

Dooley said she is impressed her twin 6-year-old boys, who are in kindergarten, are reading at a first- or second-grade level.

She attributes her children’s success to Thales’ use of direct instruction.

“The children are assessed regularly,” she said. Parents and teachers “get constant feedback. This idea of finding out your kid did poorly when you get their progress report does not exist at Thales. If my son was having difficulty with a concept I got an email that day. As a parent, you are never blindsided by the child’s performance in school. “

Luddy said providing a good school choice for parents makes a profound difference on the family and the student.

“If the student is learning and growing, it has a positive impact on the family,” he said. “If the student is doing poorly it creates more of a burden on the family.”

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