Charter schools worsening educational equity?
BASIS, a charter school operator based in Arizona, boasts on its website that its schools are “among the best in the world.” And, it includes data about rigorous curriculum, high test scores and top notch teachers that seem to back the claim.
BASIS charges no tuition and requires no entrance exams for its open-enrollment schools and claims to admit any student for whom there is space – or who can win, if there are too many applicants, a registration lottery. Despite that annoying lottery business, BASIS almost seems like a parent’s dream come true, an opportunity to watch a child’s education – and future – take off.
Some futures doubtlessly have, but for every child benefitting from BASIS lotteries, countless others risk being left behind in traditional public schools from which tax dollars have been diverted to BASIS charters – and the profits of their private operators. If this scheme takes hold in Texas, the public school inequities that Texas educators and policymakers have been struggling for years to overcome will worsen.
So far, BASIS has only one school in Texas, a charter that opened a few weeks ago in San Antonio, where it was recruited by a coalition of charter proponents and given a boost by a $1 million grant from the George W. Brackenridge Foundation. But the Legislature’s enactment of a law earlier this year to expand the number of charters in Texas is creating a potential growth industry – fueled by tax dollars – for educational entrepreneurs.
BASIS, like several other charter outfits, was organized as a non-profit. But its founders have since formed a separate, for-profit company that operates the schools. Shelley Potter, the president of the San Antonio Alliance, TSTA’s local, calls these arrangements, “Corporate, cookie cutter charter chains.”
Moreover, BASIS’ “open enrollment” claim is, in reality, something else. According to David Safier, a former teacher-turned-Arizona blogger, BASIS, at least in Arizona, requires students who are accepted to take a placement test. The parents of students who score low are advised their children will be moved back a grade if they still want to enter the school.
Many other students end up leaving the charter. At BASIS’ first charter campus in Tucson, Safier reported earlier this year, the graduating class of 2012 had 97 students when they were in sixth grade. By graduation time, the class numbered only 33, a drop of 66 percent. Every year, based on Arizona Department of Education data, the number of students at the chain’s Tucson and Scottsdale campuses fell between 60 percent and 71 percent from sixth to 12th grade, Safier wrote.
He concluded that’s how BASIS achieves a large percentage of high test scores. “They winnow the weakest students year by year until only the most academically successful survive,” he said.
That’s great for the academically fittest. But what about the large majority of students who dropped out of BASIS? Most likely, most of them reenrolled in traditional public schools, which don’t have the luxury of cherry-picking, yet are constantly under attack by the charter “reformers” who love to fatten themselves on the cream. That, folks, is not what an equitable public education system is supposed to be all about.
BASIS opened a charter school in Washington, D.C., last fall. Initially, the school enrolled 443 students. But by April, 43 students – almost 10 percent – had left the school, according to the Washington Post. Seven of those who departed were students with disabilities. BASIS, the Post reported, still got to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax money it had been awarded for the 43 students who dropped out, while the traditional public schools to which the students most likely returned received no additional money for the school year.
Then, last month, the Post reported that the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had opened an investigation into a complaint that the BASIS school in Washington discriminated against students with disabilities.
The newspaper quoted the mother of a special education student who was failing when he withdrew from the charter. “They just weren’t dealing with him or helping him at all. It was all about the kid fitting their model rather than how can we help this kid excel,” she said.