Let’s say you decide to start a school for sixth through 12th graders that gives students a rigorous, world class education: demanding courses, lots of homework, sky-high expectations.

You begin the first year with 100 sixth graders. Because the word is out about the school’s high academic standards, lots of the kids are already top students, eager to learn and willing to work. Others are less gifted and motivated. Of course, teachers put in extra time helping those students. But the school’s expectations are non-negotiable. Everyone has to keep up.

Things work pretty well through middle school. By the end of the 8th grade, some students are thriving and others are just getting by, but most of them have stuck with the program. High school, however, will be a far more challenging academic world, and the students know it. They’ll be required to take at least eight Advanced Placement (AP) courses and complete the national AP tests for six of them, on top of their other demanding, labor-intensive coursework. It’s a daunting prospect even for the best students, but those who’ve struggled just to keep up know they don’t stand a chance. Half of the original 100 students withdraw before their freshman year.

Student attrition continues in high school until by senior year, only 33 students remain. Those left standing are testament to the strength of the school’s curriculum, but what about the 67 who left before they graduated? It might be too harsh to say the school failed them, but there’s no question the school didn’t succeed at raising them to its high standards.

What I’ve just described is the way things work at BASIS charter schools. The standards are high, the workload is daunting and two out of three students don’t make it to their senior year. The schools work fine for a select group of students, but they certainly don’t provide a model that can be used in schools that educate all students who come their way. Yet ardent supporters love to tell a false story about BASIS that makes it sound like the schools have found an answer to our educational problems. They claim BASIS takes a broad sampling of students from the community and molds them into educational world beaters. If schools were more like BASIS and less like our traditional public schools, the story goes, our students would be far more successful than they are.

Many people in the media repeat the BASIS legend because they’ve heard it so often. They’ve also seen how high the schools place in national rankings. Doesn’t that prove BASIS offers a model other schools should follow? No, in fact, it doesn’t. The rankings are based on the number of AP courses students take compared to the number of seniors in the school. The more selective the student body and the fewer students in the senior class, the better the rankings. In 2008, for instance, when BASIS Tucson was ranked Number 1 by  Newsweek, it had only 18 seniors, down from the 57 who began as 6th graders.

The BASIS legend is trumpeted by conservative “education reformers” whose goal is to promote charter schools and private school vouchers while dismantling the traditional public school system. They present BASIS as the shining academic city on the hill and insist that traditional public schools are failures by comparison. The fact is, you can’t compare BASIS to schools that take children of all abilities and keep working with them even if they don’t match up to some preset standard of excellence. Niche schools like BASIS are fine for what they are, but universal public education doesn’t select out the highest achieving students and show everyone else the door.

What we need here is some truth in advertising. Let’s give BASIS its due for offering a rigorous education to a select group of students. Let’s not give it credit for showing us a better way to educate our children.


(Editor’s Note: Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.)

(8) comments

John Flanagan

BASIS and charter schools are not intended to replace public schools, but rather to enhance education and offer competition where the public system falls short. Perhaps, it is also perfectly valid for a charter school to promote religious values, after all, we do not have to accept the social values and secular convictions of the popular culture where they conflict with religious convictions, nor do we have to expose our children to philosophies with which we disagree. If the public school system can become more efficient, less indoctrinal in liberal causes, and inclined to enforce scholarship and classroom discipline, fewer Charter schools would be necessary.
The problem of tenure in the New York City school system, as a valid and well documented illustration, reflects how inept teachers are retained for years at the expense of taxpayers and to the detriment of learning. This is the legacy of teacher unions tilting the balance of power in their favor. An abuse of union influence has seriously affected education in many cities. Charter schools are the result of public school failures and the promotion of social values contrary to many Americans, particularly Christians.
The other side of the coin rests with American students themselves, some of whom are earnest about acquiring an education, while others are less interested. Those less interested and unmotivated, unless they change, will fail in school and in life, blame parents and teachers, and spend their lives asking why they are not as fortunate as others. Whether a student aspires for a profession or a trade, the requirement is the same: Work hard, apply effort, prepare to sacrifice, be realistic, and be responsible for oneself.
The liberal principles of many progressive educators is to level the playing field so that unmotivated students are on a par with the studious ones, with their self esteem intact. This is a detrimental point of view, and does not help the disinterested and lazy student to succeed.
In my view, BASIS is the better way. If the public system feels threatened, that's just too bad.

Marc Severson

John, thanks for turning another well written article into an opportunity for more teacher bashing. While there have been excesses perpetrated in the name of union activism by and large the membership of the associations are hard-working, dedicated professionals who unfortunately must band together for their own protection from those who would denigrate, marginalize and attempt to destroy public education.

John Flanagan

Marc, I assumed most earnest and dedicated public school teachers would be offended by my comments, but my intention was not to attack individual teachers, because I have known many whose dedication to their students was above reproach. The problem is the unions in places like New York, where I am most familiar. The NYC system is particularly abusive and overtly protects teachers who do not belong in this important profession. The balance of power is tilted too far towards the unions.
Over the past decade, many people have wrongly blamed teachers for poor student scores and I have found this a misplaced and dishonest conclusion. While good teachers motivate students in a positive way, my focus has always been on student participation in their own education. I have little sympathy for the lazy student who doesn't care to do homework, complete assignments, or participate in class. They usually succeed in bringing down other students academically while they are acting out their own immature narrative. Among youths, there are many self motivated students who do want to learn. We could talk about parents as well. Some are just plain ignorant, with a preference for having their kids in sports instead of spending more time with the books.
So, the BASIS or Charter school should be viewed as a positive thing. The larger public school system needs to be reformed and refocused. School sports should, for example, be of secondary or less importance than academic or commercial training for trades. The reality of public education is training for jobs and professions.
If we do not reverse the negatives of our education performance, we shall be left in the dust by China and other countries which focus on academic achievement and allow no excuses for laziness.


I think a charter school system is the only way to escape the biggest obstacle to a successful education system, that is the teacher's unions. Government simply doesn't have the where with all to fire bad workers period, so I fully support a system where organizations like BASIS are allowed to develop free from the grip of the teacher's union and all the other ridiculous bureaucracy associated with public education.

I read your article and was very dismayed by your cavalier attitude toward a school that works hard every day to educate our young children. Is BASIS for everyone? No, but on the flipside no school is for everyone. Do I want my child in a school that will purposely hold him back until everyone catches up? No. What good does that do him? So I ask you, if schools are holding children back because they want all of the children to succeed, aren't they failing the children that are capable of more? And wouldn't BASIS have a a higher graduation rate if their incoming 5th graders (yes 5th graders, you had the facts wrong in your article) were better prepared. In fact, Arizona is ranked 43rd in education in the United States. Schools like BASIS are trying to set a higher academic standard and actually help students get valuable information out of school. I have seen children come in to BASIS unprepared for the rigorous academic curriculum because of the inferior standards of Arizonan public schools. BASIS works with these students and they succeed and achieve much more than they ever could at a public school. If you raise the bar the children will work harder to reach it. They want to learn.

A major reason that students leave BASIS in high school is not due to the rigorous academic curriculum, but rather the lack of a sports program. Parents will pull their children out of BASIS so they can play sports in public schools. That is great, but they leave high school with some great memories of their accomplishments on the court or on the field and have nothing to show for it. They will end up in a mediocre college with a mediocre job. So yes, BASIS is not a school for everyone, but for most students it is miles above the lower standards of public schools.

Marc Severson

Thank you David you have clearly stated the obvious and supported it with data. You also helped by adding another reference for my next post. ReTired Tucson Teacher

Isadoro Duncan

John, I am not a teacher, but have spent a lot of time in the public schools. If they were like you describe I would be of your opinion.
So much of what you said is so off-base I will start with one point.
You say, "BASIS and charter schools are not intended to replace public schools, but rather to enhance education and offer competition where the public system falls short." I think you will find many of our state legislators would very much like to replace regular public schools with charters schools.
Let's clear: Charter schools are public schools, funded by our tax money, but if you think my tax money should fund a religious school, I say, "Hell, No!"
Suggested reading: The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.


This is a poor excuse for journalism if I have ever seen one. First, It is so similar to an article I read in The Arizona Daily Star and second there is no real research here. I am so tired of people generalizing about who Basis is for and using the excuse of loads of homework as a limiting factor. Not a better way to educate our children you say? What on earth is wrong with raising the bar and having kids work hard to succeed? It beats the alternative I see in the public schools where they lower the bar so they can be a high achieving school! I have 2 sons at Basis and a nephew at Cross. Guess what? They had about the same amount of homework. But, while my son learned physics, chemistry and was a year or so ahead in math my nephew did book reports and projects and took social studies and very little science. They both are able to do sports- Dolphins football and elite basketball. No, it isn't a school for everyone, it is a school that is for kids who aren't afraid of some hard work and parents who are willing to support them and not insist on A's. Why can't we be proud of such a great addition to our schools in AZ? Why does every story I read have to be so short on facts?


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