It's been called one of the best high schools in the country, consistently outperforming even the most exclusive private schools.

Now, the forces behind BASIS Charter School want to bring their educational philosophy to Oro Valley.

"It makes sense that the parents might want this kind of education," said BASIS co-founder Michael Block.

Block and wife Olga started the school in 1997, combining the philosophies of the most rigorous European and Asian prep schools with the broad-based approach of the American education system.

BASIS is a charter school, run by a non-profit corporation. It has programs from grades 5-12 at its Tucson and Scottsdale schools. And, it's free and open to the public.

An item on the Oro Valley Town Council agenda this Wednesday, Oct. 7, brings up a possible rental agreement with the school for a portion of the town's municipal operations center in Rancho Vistoso. Michael Block raised the idea of an Oro Valley school at an August council meeting.

The Blocks' philosophy differs starkly from much of the education establishment.

"We focus on putting great teachers in the classroom," Michael Block said.

Instead of seeking out teachers in the nation's education colleges, BASIS schools look for teachers with expertise in their fields.

Many of the school's teachers didn't come out of university departments of education. In fact, many don't carry the pedagogical certifications necessary to teach in most public school systems.

Thus far, that approach has proven successful.

This year, BASIS Tucson reached the No. 5 slot on Newsweek Magazine's annual high school ranking. The school has been on the Newsweek list since 2006.

"It's nice to outrank those schools that select students," Block said.

The school made another prestigious ranking in 2008, when U.S. News and World Report put the school at No. 13 on its top 100 public schools list.

BASIS also has won accolades from some unlikely sources in recent months.

Last week, the seemingly odd pairing of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and civil-rights leader Al Sharpton sang the school's praises during a joint appearance at BASIS Tucson.

The pair was on hand to help promote the film "2 Million Minutes," a documentary that compares education in China, India and the United States. Tucson was one of several school stops Gingrich and Sharpton will make around the country.

"We can always debate our differences," Sharpton said about he and Gingrich's polar-opposite political perspectives. "But we can't debate: Can we spell, can we think?"

Sharpton told of his own experiences of a childhood in poverty and welfare. Despite his family's troubles, his mother remained involved in his education and made sure he focused on his studies.

"Parents cannot use the excuse of helplessness to not be involved," Sharpton said. "You don't get that poor that you surrender you children."

Gingrich spoke critically of those who have defended the status quo in the American education system.

"We have been a nation of low expectations, low achievement and constant excuses," Gingrich said. "We've had a 50-year drift toward an education system that is dysfunctional."

He laid much of the blame on schools of education and state legislatures, saying the former were resistant to change, and the latter had passed "stupid rules."

For the Blocks, there's no magic formula for the success of the school that Gingrich and Sharpton wanted to witness firsthand.

"Hard work," Michael said.

In addition, he said, students and teachers are held to the same high-levels of accountability. And of course, the school's back-to-basics approach.

"(We have) a concentration on academics and not entertainment," Michael said. "Sports are secondary."

Despite the successes of BASIS, some have been critical of the charter system. Foremost among the criticisms lies the perception of lenient state oversight of charters.

"The problem arises in Arizona because of how lax the charter school legislation is," said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association.

The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, the body tasked with regulating charters, has seven employees charged with oversight of nearly 600 schools statewide.

Arizona is home to more charter schools than any other state. Pima County alone has more than 100 charter schools.

With such an array of schools, the standards and performance of charters vary significantly.

"They run the gamut, from the best, most accountable to outright frauds," Wright said.

He noted one, an online charter school, which was found to have been outsourcing the grading of student work to a firm in India without the knowledge or consent of parents.

The same thing that Gingrich praised troubles Wright and others who aren't as sold on the charter model — the absence of teacher certification.

Wright said the charters can not only hire teachers without education credentials, but some have hired people to teach who have never graduated from college.

In extreme cases, Wright said, some charter teachers were found to not have graduated from high school.

"What we really want to see is legislation that puts in a level of accountability," Wright said.

The funding of charter schools has also raised questions.

Charter schools receive public funding based on a formula of about $4,600 per student, as opposed to public schools that receive $6,200 per student. Without the regulation and oversight that most public schools have, it's unclear where the money goes.

"Some of the real questions about finance and funding are the very veiled funding at charter schools and what they spend money on," Wright said.

But for supporters of the charter philosophy, the schools' lack of uniformity is what makes them desirable.

"Charter schools respond to the reality that one-size-fits-all is not good for kids," said Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute think tank.

Bolick, who also sits on the BASIS board of directors, said charter schools serve those students that public schools often have little to offer — gifted and special needs children.

He also says its no fluke that some of the state's best high schools are charters.

"Seven to nine of the top 10 schools in Arizona are charter schools, they're not an outlier at all," Bolick said.

Added to that, he said, most charters have the best oversight available — the invisible hand of the free market.

"Unlike traditional public schools, if it's not filling its mission, it goes out of business," Bolick said.

Michael Block said his schools have been successful because of their accountability, and through innovation.

"One of the things we do," Block said, "is try to break the stereotypes."

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