James Gregg/Genesis Photos

BASIS uncovered

Education | Public-school educators are doing their best to ignore a charter school that is accomplishing what they cannot

Issue: "Do the math," Nov. 7, 2009

TUCSON, Ariz.-BASIS charter school in Tucson, Ariz., may be the most unassuming high school ever to receive positive treatment from the national media. Nothing about its location (downtown next to a Bank of America and across from Target) nor its building (a rather dated former daycare center) indicates that it could compete with the monolith, state-of-the-art high schools that surround it.

Yet not only does it compete with local schools that have vastly more money and resources, according to analyses by Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report, it bests them and schools all across the country. In 2008, Newsweek ranked BASIS the No. 1 high school in America. It won the publication's fifth place for 2009, and has been in the top 10 every year since 2006. U.S. News and World Report further bolstered BASIS' reputation, naming it 13th on their 2009 best high schools list and giving it a gold medal for college readiness.

Such vaunted recognition for an institution that was only established 10 years ago is now prompting Washington to take a look. On Oct. 1, after attending the D.C. premiere of the documentary Two Million Minutes that features BASIS, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Al Sharpton-both part of the Obama administration's education reform team-flew to Arizona to tour the campus. Though their observations reflected the pair's disparate political philosophies, both praised what they saw.

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Gingrich pointed out how much the school has achieved without expensive facilities and a large budget, saying that when "the educational establishment sees an institution like this, they're terrified." Sharpton celebrated the fact that as a charter school, BASIS is free to all students who want to attend and provides low-income and minority students the kind of education that was once only available to those with big bank accounts and the right skin color. With so many people asking how a school located in one of the poorest cities in the country is able to achieve so much with about $1,000 less funding per student than district-run public schools, BASIS is quickly becoming the national model for education reform.

According to BASIS founder Michael Block, the school might not exist at all, or at least not in its current incarnation, were it located anywhere other than Arizona, which he calls "the most charter-friendly place in the nation."

The Grand Canyon State is known for innovative policies when it comes to charter schools-schools that receive public funding but are run by private individuals or companies. Unlike other states, Arizona doesn't require charter school teachers to become certified and has no cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate. It also has multiple bodies that are able to authorize a charter, whereas many states have only one. "Arizona charter law absolutely allowed us to do something we wouldn't have been able to do elsewhere," says Block. "It is very much underappreciated."

It was on discovering the flexibility of these laws that Block and his wife Olga, both economists by trade, decided to found BASIS. "My wife Olga came to live permanently in the United States [from the Czech Republic] in the fall of 1996 and she brought with her a middle-school-aged daughter, Petra," Block recalls. "Petra went to the best middle school in Scottsdale, which is a pretty affluent area. And Olga found that she really liked the facilities and the friendliness and openness of American classrooms but was astounded by the lack of content."

Employed by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix while her husband was on leave from the University of Arizona to work for the governor, Olga learned a good deal about education financing and reform and convinced her husband they could forge a better model. In 1997 the pair resolved to write their own charter with the idea of combining "the best of American education with the best of European education." The following year they founded BASIS middle school and in 1999 opened the high school.

What the Blocks considered the "best of" education in the United States was its free expression in the classroom. "It's not that students aren't able to question teachers in other countries, it's just that they're able to do it with a vengeance here," Block chuckles. He also wanted to maintain the American tradition of innovation, though he saw a dire need to marry it to a knowledge base that has been dwindling amongst high-schoolers in recent years, particularly in the areas of math and science.

"I'm afraid that a lot of strutting of American teenagers is not based on accomplishment," says Block. "The rest of the world has progressed and Americans have stayed still or done slightly worse over the last 50 years, which has brought us to a situation where our K to 12th-grade education is inferior to most of the industrialized world. . . . It's no accident that 25 percent of U.S. tech startups in the last two decades were launched by immigrants."


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