Another Look at the BASIS School Enterprise

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It's been awhile since I've written about BASIS schools. Most of what needs to be said has been said already, by me and others. And besides, the "BASIS education miracle"—which isn't miraculous in any way, shape or form—has become background noise in the "education reform"/privatization propaganda machine. The charter schools no longer need the intense scrutiny they did back when privatization enthusiasts used BASIS as the poster child for all that's wonderful about charters. My most recent post on the subject was on the arcane subject of the BASIS business pyramid, a nest of separate but interlocking business entities which encompass nonprofit charter schools, for-profit U.S. private schools and one international private school in Shenzhen, China.

So I was pleased to see the topic revived in a lengthy, informative overview of the BASIS enterprise in the Washington Post written by Carol Burris, the executive director of Network for Public Education. She does an excellent job of summarizing the way the schools operate. The new news for me is the possibility that the charter schools may be in financial trouble. More about that at the end of this post.

Burris' whole piece is worth a read, but if you don't want to take the time, here are the Cliff Notes.

BASIS, Burris acknowledges,"provides a challenging education" for its students. But who are the students? Burris has a chart comparing the ethnic mix of Arizona's BASIS charters to the rest of the state.
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Ten times as many Asian students, a fifth as many Latino students, significantly more white students. Clearly, BASIS has a selective, non-representative ethnic population. It also has a tenth of the students with learning disabilities as Arizona schools in general and no English Language Learners. And since the schools don't have a lunch program which would provide free and reduced lunches, they don't have many low income students who would depend on that service. Add the placement of the schools in higher income areas and the lack of transportation services to bring students from other, less affluent areas, and you have a student population that sits firmly atop the socioeconomic and academic ladders.

Then there's the attrition rate. The BASIS Tucson class of 2016 had 130 seventh graders and ended up with 54 seniors, a drop-off which is typical of BASIS schools. The rigorous curriculum and other academic demands weed out students who can't make the grade, turning the already-selective enrollment into an ever more selective group as the students approach graduation.

Want to know why BASIS schools score so high in the national "best high school" rankings? The fewer seniors, the more AP classes they've taken and the higher the AP test scores, the higher a school is ranked. With BASIS's emphasis on AP coursework, the selective nature of its students and the year-by-year weeding-out process, top rankings are built into the schools' DNA.

The individual BASIS charters are nonprofits, but the top administrative levels are for-profit enterprises, meaning that most of our taxpayer money which goes to the schools ends up behind a for-profit firewall where the financial wheelings and dealings are hidden from the public.

At the end of the article, Burris writes about the possibility that BASIS charters are running a deficit, which could put the charter chain in financial jeopardy.
[Arizonan Curt Cardine, a former East Coast superintendent and former charter administrator] analyzed the latest audit for BASIS and he sees trouble ahead for the charter chain. “The most recent audit shows that BASIS School Inc. is now running a huge deficit in their assets of over $13 million. The charter schools’ net loss for the 14-15 year alone was $3,074,317.”

Cardine said he was not surprised. “In the state of Arizona, the financial failure rate on charters is 42.79 percent. Over-leveraging is a huge problem,” said Cardine. “Charters fail, but somehow folks leave making money. Charters like to say they are ‘for the kids, not the adults.’ That has certainly not been my experience — especially here in Arizona.”

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