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What BASIS offers: A passport to 20,000 futures

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On a blog maintained by the Network for Public Education, a blogger recently attacked BASIS.ed and BASIS Charter Schools with a series of falsehoods and innuendo. Ordinarily, we would not dignify such errors with a response, but as the Arizona Capitol Times was going to publish it, and offered us a response, we felt compelled to do so, with facts.

Peter Bezanson

Peter Bezanson

Next year, our network of BASIS Curriculum Schools will number more than thirty, serving more than 20,000 students, most of whom receive a world-class education for free, with no admission criteria or entry requirements. BASIS schools are considered by many to be among America’s highest performing schools. We are immensely proud of our students, and of our faculty who foster their success. We owe it to these deserving people and their families to correct the record. To do so, we are focusing on the “Five Biggest Falsehoods” from the blog post:

False Claim #1

We ‘cherry-pick’ students

There is “cherry picking” at BASIS Charter Schools, though not the type the blogger alleges. Our schools don’t choose students – and cannot, by law. Rather, students and parents pick us. In Arizona, they’re able to choose among hundreds of programs and curricula, “cherry picking” the best fit for their child.

The blogger implies that we should be ashamed of our student demographics, and makes factually incorrect assertions regarding our English Language Learner (ELL), Special Education and economically disadvantaged student populations.

Here are the real overall numbers:

  • 40% Caucasian (non-Hispanic)
  • 25% Hispanic, African American, and mixed race
  • 35% Asian/Indian

Also:

  • All BASIS charters have free and reduced lunch qualifying students (ranging up to 20%).
  • We have English Language Learner (ELL) students at our schools.
  • We have students with a wide range of special needs at our schools.
  • We have no admissions testing. We test incoming students who are already admitted for mathematics placement.
  • There is no mandatory donation. Fewer than 50% of our families donate annually; the average donation is about $700.
  • The $300 fee the blogger mentions is a fully refundable book deposit – waived for anyone with economic hardship, and returned when textbooks are turned in.
  • Simply, BASIS Charter Schools exist for any student who wishes to attend – and wins the enrollment lottery. We typically have 5,000 to 7,000 total students on our charter school waitlists annually.

False Claim #2

We have high attrition rates

While our schools are for anyone who wants our academic program, they’re not for everyone. Like any school, we do have student attrition. Families move, or decide they prefer a different kind of school, and students matriculate at natural breakpoints (5th to 6th or 8th to 9th grade).

Overall, from the 2015-16 to 2016-17 school years, our retention rates averaged:

  • 91% from K to 8th grade.
  • 93% from 9th to 12th grade.
  • 65% from 8th to 9th grade.

False Claim #3

We expand only to serve upper class families

BASIS Charter Schools began as one school in central Tucson in 1998, serving a largely low- and middle-income student population. Today, we have charters in Scottsdale, Prescott, Flagstaff, Goodyear, central Phoenix, Mesa, Washington, D.C., and other communities with varied median household incomes.

We are also specifically servicing the lowest income areas in Arizona. BASIS Phoenix South opens this fall, serving a largely Latino and African-American student population from neighborhoods around 19th Avenue and Southern. BASIS Tucson South opens by 2019, and, thereafter, we’ll continue to serve communities that desire our program.

False Claim #4

We have high administrative expenses

The blogger cites an entirely misleading study. Not only that, but the study’s author subsequently produced a more-accurate study of charter administrative costs – and found that every BASIS Charter School in Arizona is among 190 “efficiently run charter schools” in our state.

In Arizona, the breakdown of expenses outside the classroom falls into three categories:

  • Administration
  • Support services
  • All other support services and operations

Here’s the blogger’s error: BASIS Charter Schools classify a large number of expenses as “administration.” However, many others classify the same administrative expenses in “support services” or “all other support services and operations.” For example, the cited study trumpets schools that appear to have low administrative expenses, even though those same schools do not count building operations, or maintenance, in the administrative category. Without knowing precisely what each district or charter codes to the three categories, it’s impossible to objectively compare.

Further, as mentioned above, Jim Hall, the cited study’s author, produced a new study in 2016 called “Arizona Charter School Classroom Spending,” which counted every BASIS Charter School among the charters that spend the least on administrative and building expenses, and among those that spend the most on direct classroom expenses.

False Claim #5

We are struggling financially

The blogger ends her post with a quote from a former school administrator who looked at one of our audits, and jumped to incorrect conclusions.

Over the past few years, BASIS Charter Schools have successfully refinanced a portfolio of our schools. This requires the expensing of debt issuance costs and other fees related to the refinancing in the year the refinancing is signed.  However, these issuance costs and other fees are actually being paid out over 25 years. BASIS Charter Schools continue to be cash flow positive. We have cleared all debt covenants and financial compliance metrics for charter renewals and new charter applications.

Finally, the blog post suggests that BASIS.ed and BASIS Charter Schools are “building an empire.” What critics see as imperial, however, 20,000 students and their parents see as a journey toward better opportunities as students, and beyond.

Please note the word “passport” in this essay’s title. It’s a reference to a Malcom X quote: “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” We believe that has been and continues to be true for every student who has ever come to one of our schools. That’s why we come to work every day.

Peter Bezanson is CEO of BASIS.ed

EDITOR’S NOTE: A counter-point to this commentary can be found here.

___________________________________________________________

The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

8 comments

  1. Carol Burris’ column criticizing BASIS Scottsdale Charter school omits numerous important details about both BASIS and the Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD), within which it is located and directly competes with.

    First, the obvious. The days when an average high-school graduate could easily obtain a high-paying good-benefits lifetime job in a nearby manufacturing plant are over – thanks to increasing offshoring/outsourcing, automation, and computerization. Even STEM jobs are now vulnerable. Concerned parents of approximately 1,200 pupils, mostly from SUSD, now send their children to BASIS Scottsdale because they saw it as best meeting the future needs of their children. The fact that over 36% of BASIS Scottsdale 2016 graduates earned National Merit Scholar recognition, almost 50% of AP test takers earned National AP Scholar – while taking an average 11.5 exams/senior, the school was ranked #2 in the nation and #1 among Arizona high schools (U.S. News), and ‘Best (High School) of the West’ for 2014 (The Daily Beast), is part of a system that outscored all other countries in terms of pupil performance in math, reading, and science, – as well as its students being most satisfied with their teachers undoubtedly strongly encouraged those parents to do so. Why does Ms. Burris resent their having this superior alternative?

    By contrast, over the last ten years, SUSD pupil achievement has stagnated/declined – especially in math. SUSD 15-year-olds recently scored an estimated 145 points below BASIS Scottsdale’s 626 – in the middle of our international competitors. Almost 15,000 SUSD-residing parents have elected to enroll their children in BASIS Scottsdale and other alternatives. These enrollment losses now cost SUSD about $50 million in revenue/year, and will likely grow as charters continue to grow in response to thousands of parents on their Waiting Lists

    What has SUSD done in response? Challenging and credible goals linked to significant rewards would help SUSD focus and motivate improved pupil achievement and pupil retention – possibly even regain some of those pupils and revenues it has lost. Even the local McDonald’s outlet I frequent has similar goals. SUSD, however, has NO goals at any level for improving pupil achievement, pupil retention, or parental satisfaction, it withheld school/district-level test results from the public until legal action forced it to release them, stuck to a reportedly ‘easy’ curriculum for about a decade, and will continue next year to use a single curriculum district-wide, despite wide variation in pupil backgrounds and parental interest. This is all strongly indicative that neither the SUSD Board nor its top administrators give significant emphasis to improving pupil outcomes.

    BASIS teachers do not have tenure. SUSD teachers do – along with a 120+ page union contract. SUSD administrators ‘cannot remember any tenured teacher (of about 1,550) being dismissed over the last decade.’ Several years ago Arizona mandated public schools begin basing at least 33% of teacher evaluation on pupil gains. In October, 2016, SUSD’s superintendent and assistant deliberately misled the Board and public into believing nearby public districts were not following this practice. (When informed of this error, the Board did not respond.) Thus, SUSD is neither complying with state law, nor effectively motivating teachers to improve.

    BASIS and other leading charter schools very strongly encourage/mandate significant parental involvement/support for their children’s education. SUSD does not – even though this has been repeatedly suggested to its leaders.

    Leading organizations regularly compare their own practices/results with those of competitors to determine potential mean of improvement and pitfalls to avoid. Not SUSD. I have repeatedly suggested that SUSD do this, and a large charter system even expressed willingness to discuss its methods and results with SUSD. SUSD never responded to or acted upon this suggestion. Similarly, leading organizations make a special effort to keep up-to-date on the latest relevant research. I have repeatedly provided SUSD with important recent education advances, along with contact information for leading experts. etc. Again SUSD has never acted upon any of those new findings/suggestions – preferring eg. to pay staff according to self-serving accountability-dodging myths at least a half-century out-of-date. One of these – that eg. high-school STEM teachers should be paid the same as early elementary teachers, all other factors being equal, makes it much more difficult for SUSD to attract and retain top-caliber high-school STEM teachers. Another – paying staff according to experience beyond the first few years and additional teacher coursework, instead of pupil gains, has been shown to reduce the number of top-teachers interested in applying to such schools. Charter schools generally do a far superior job of motivating/rewarding teachers for excellence.

    SUSD has continually complained about ‘insufficient funding’ for as long as I can remember. Yet, even though it was criticized for excessive 2012 transportation and overhead costs by the state Auditor General, it not only has ignored those opportunities to save, it added at least $2 million in overheads and unnecessary spending during the current school year. Worst of all, instead of working to improve pupil achievement, the Board and administration have focused on the much easier task of simply providing the appearance of a good education – committing to spending about $500 million to rebuild and renovate every campus (most did not require this). Meanwhile, enrollment continues to decline – even in recently rebuilt facilities.

    Ms. Burris complains about BASIS Scottsdale not having a school board elected by locals. Neither does any other corporation that I know of. She’s apparently unaware of the fact that because of generally low turnout, school board elections are largely dominated by public school teachers with support from friends, relatives, and others generally unaware of how much is spent and how little is accomplished. Another problem – elected public school board members rarely have even meeting management skills, let alone general/strategic management competency. Thus they generally rubber-stamp whatever their superintendent and teachers want. Does Ms. Burris really believe they’re to be preferred over Dr. Craig Barrett – former Intel Chairman and now Chairman of BASIS Ed.? One of public schools biggest problems in America is that public schools are largely indirectly run by employees – primarily for their own benefit. Not so at BASIS Scottsdale, thank goodness!

    Another complaint – that BASIS requests families contribute at least $1,500/year/child. Some do, some don’t. So what? Regardless, Ms. Burris is also seemingly unaware/doesn’t care that SUSD regularly requests additional funding from local residents, and usually succeeds. Those approved requests now greatly exceed $1,500/year/pupil.

    What about the study Ms. Burris cites reporting BASIS schools spend over 4X as much on administration than the average public school? Again, so what? BASIS outcomes are excellent, BASIS Scottsdale’s total publicly funded expenditures/pupil are LESS than those at Arizona public schools, AND it still makes a profit! What’s not to like? Regardless, this also provides strong evidence that SUSD’s deficiencies aren’t likely caused by inadequate funding!

    Another distortion – complaining that ‘BASIS received nearly $2 million federal grants in 2015,’ conveniently omitting the fact that SUSD budgeted $12.6 million from federal grants in 2016 (2015 data is unavailable). SUSD also receives over $7 million/year in ‘desegregation funding,’ despite ‘The Atlantic’ and others pointing out the inappropriateness of such when compared to nearby districts. BASIS Scottsdale does not receive any such funding.

    Then there’s the criticism of BASIS Scottsdale’s not serving minorities and inner-city pupils. Ms. Burris, with her education background, should know that only a fool would start out trying to serve every group of students with a very demanding and innovative curriculum. She should also have taken the time to learn that BASIS has moved into minority-dominated South Phoenix, as well as into San Antonio (10 – 12% economically disadvantaged student body), Baton Rouge (anticipated late 2017 opening, with 80% of pupils qualifying for free/reduced-price lunches), and Washington D.C. (17.4% economically disadvantaged, 4.7% special education, 9.8% at risk).

    Summarizing, SUSD is poorly managed and led compared to BASIS Scottsdale, and its pupil achievement considerably suffers as a result. Parents would be negligent to simply accept SUSD’s deficiencies. Instead of constantly complaining about the supposed unfairness of charter school competitors, public schools and Ms. Burris should instead take the opportunity to learn from them – especially BASIS Scottsdale.

  2. The story was not on a blog on the Network for Public Education website. It was in the Washington Post, specifically Valerie Strauss the Answersheet. The demographic information was obtained from the website of the State of Arizona. All of my figures can be confirmed here. http://www.azed.gov/research-evaluation/arizona-enrollment-figures/ I used the latest enrollment numbers given 2015-16. It is also from that same source that I computed those specific attrition rates.
    Jim Hall personally gave me the information regarding administrative costs; one would think he knows his own study. Finally regarding the financial debt of $13 million dollars–this was not a one year problem. According to the analysis of your audits and statements by former superintendent Curt Cardine, BASIS has been running in the red in assets for several years.
    Calling something a “false claim” and then presenting “alternate facts” is an interesting tactic. All of my sources were from public documents, including the audits of BASIS Inc. Let the readers look at the sources and decide. It is, after all, their tax dollars.

  3. BASIS CEO Peter Benanzon misinterpreted two studies conducted by Arizonans for Charter School Accountability in his op-ed piece What BASIS offers: A passport to 20,000 futures published on April 6, 2017.
    First, Mr. Benanzon claimed that there is confusion about what constitutes administrative spending. The Auditor General gives charters and districts the same specific guidelines regarding categories where spending is to be recorded on the annual financial report. No school in Arizona, including BASIS, counts building maintenance and operations as an administrative expense, as Mr. Benanzon suggests.

    The 2015 study on administrative spending, co-authored with the Grand Canyon Institute, clearly demonstrates that BASIS Schools had some of the highest administrative expenses in the state. The study compared the total administrative spending reported by all districts and charters and found that seven of the thirteen BASIS Schools spent in excess of $1.5 million each for general, school, and central administration. In Arizona salaries, that’s the equivalent of 10 principals, 5 business managers, 10 administrative assistants, and a truckload of copy paper – for each school.

    The 2016 Charter Classroom Spending Report examined charter spending for instruction, administration, and facilities – using the same methodology as the 2015 study. While BASIS was not specifically examined, it is clear from the 2016 data that BASIS, faced with losses totaling over $13 million in 2015, drastically cut administrative spending in 2016 – shaving $5.3 million from general administration expenses alone.

    The 2015 and 2016 studies make two things very clear. First, BASIS had extremely high administrative expenditures in 2015. More importantly, BASIS Schools ran just fine in 2016 with over $5 million less in management costs – additional funds that in 2015 went to executive salaries, expansion, and profits to for-profit BASIS ed.

    Even with reducing general administrative costs by $5 million, BASIS recorded a total net loss in assets of $22.9 million by the end of 2016. Despite Mr. Benanzon’s assertions, losing millions of dollars over four consecutive years is not great management, even in the charter world.
    All documentation is available at azcsa.org.

  4. This is an opinion, my opinion only: charter schools do not do it differently, nor do it better; and to make a profit off of government funds by being a for-profit charter school is a scam perpetrated upon the public who think they’re getting something better. What they are sometimes able to get–Basis in Scottsdale is an example– is a “select social environment” for their children. No poor kids and for many that means no non-white kids.

    I read Loyd Eskildson’s April 7, 2017 comment above along with the follow up comments from Carol Burris and Jim Hall with great interest. While I do not attempt to back up my comments with facts and solid references, as do Ms. Burris and Mr. Hall, I do have 35 years personal experience in public and charter school education.

    Our public education system is–in all but a variety of isolated instances–an outdated model staffed by outdated administrators, teachers, and other staff members. Because most of the funding for both public schools and charter schools comes from the same source, i.e. state and federal funds, charter schools are also public schools. Charter schools arose in response to genuine needs/desires on the part of parents of school-age children who felt their children’s educational needs were not being adequately met by the local public school(s). And I agree with them.

    Charter schools became our first attempt at providing school-choice. As public schools, by law, charter schools are not allowed to pick and choose students. Most use a “lottery” to level the playing field for potential students in an attempt to mirror the requirement for public schools to enroll any student who lives in their attendance district whether they want that student or not. Here is the first and fundamental flaw of charter schools. The “lottery” is a sham. Charter school administrators, whether s/he is a CEO or a Director or a Principal, quietly and privately pick and choose their students, don’t tell me they don’t. They pick and choose based on their own personal preferences, and based upon money: some students (“at risk” and “special education” to name but two types) bring more government dollars-per-student than does a standard student, based upon state and federal funding formulae. And if a charter school doesn’t want the lower test scores that come with “at risk” and “special education” students? I guess they can charge a $1500/year fee to the parents to make up the difference.

    The comparison of schools can be made using facts about funding–both revenue and expenditures. That’s good. That’s solid information, and it is also public information. We can also compare “results” in terms of student academic success, again by accessing public information, looking at the state-mandated tests and results by school. But you see, one must make sure we are comparing “apples to apples.” Are the schools you are comparing serving the same student income levels?

    How about that school board that doesn’t exist in a for-profit charter school? The requirement for a school board to oversee charter school operation, as is done for public schools, is to ensure that community members from various walks of life work together for the good of the education of the students. It’s messy. It’s imperfect. Very much like the operation of a democracy. The idea that school boards are made up of former teachers and their friends and relatives is, well, ludicrous. I’m sure you can find many examples of that? But as a general condition? No.

    And the assertion that charter schools have better teachers? Can pay their teachers more? I dispute the “better teacher” theory because they are simply the same teachers from the local public school that stepped out for a better salary at a charter school. Better salaries? Yes, and these are usually funded by the short-term start-up funds that most states provide to new charter schools for their first three years of operation. Then it goes away. What happens to the salaries then?

    Then we get to the “for-profit” school. In our American experience, almost without exception a business is in business to make a profit, and is focused on its bottom line, not on its function. Thus the car makers who endanger and kill people because the “fix” decreases the bottom line. The bankers and financial investors who knowingly use other people’s money (ours) to invest/spend in ways that enhance their personal money-making-bottom-line while putting our money at great risk. They don’t take the risk, and they don’t lose a dime if the investment fails. Think Enron, although there are many others in more recent times. Do you want your child’s education to come second in priority to profit?

    So which is better for your child, a charter school, for-profit or not? The local public school?

    Study after study over decades of research tell us that student test scores reflect the income-level of students rather than the effectiveness of the school. Aha. So Basis in Scottsdale student test scores reflect their income level, not the effectiveness of the school. Yes. And SUSD student test scores–the same. The difference is (comparing apples to oranges) that a traditional public school which I presume SUSD is, depending on its location, usually has students from many income levels which can diminish overall student achievement scores. Why is income level the standard for predicting student success?

    If I am a student in a middle-class or higher income level household I probably get decent health care because I have working parent(s) who get benefits from their job, or who can otherwise afford decent health insurance. Good. My teeth are healthy, too. Good. I am exposed to the conversations within my household that center around issues and topics more than around survival (where will I get a job? the money for a carton of milk? food?). I hear and learn more words, more big words, too. I am read to by my parents, and I see my parents reading (books, pads, computers, papers). Again, I learn more words and may develop a desire to read. I’m talked to more. Predictions will say that I will score well on student achievement tests, and I will do so regardless of the competence of the teachers I endure.

    Both public and charter schools are not held accountable for school-wide student learning. They continue to take the students that come–by design or by default–deliver an outmoded curriculum using outmoded techniques, and get the same thing every time: achievement predicted by family income level. Student achievement is NOT predicted by the effectiveness of the school in a charter school nor in a public school, for-profit or not. But charter schools can manipulate their student population (income levels) whereas traditional public schools cannot, and that’s why you have to be careful to compare apples to apples.

    Schools–CEOs, directors, principals, school boards, teachers and parents–do not believe that we can hold educators accountable for the learning of low-income students, and further, believe their parents are “the problem.” Not so. It’s time for student achievement to be tied to the effectiveness of the school/the competence of the teachers! It’s time for real educators—not outdated repetitions of the past.

    How? That is the subject of another discussion, but just a hint: it is possible; it is being done; it is phenomenal; and it helps break the cycle of poverty that must be addressed on many levels. Will vouchers achieve this? No, they will simply perpetuate the status quo and open the door for more for-profit schools.

    Is Basis an effective school? Or is their touted success simply due to their students’ family income? You do the research. Check the facts. Decide for yourself.

  5. Ms. Naveaux: Do you have any data whatsoever that logically support your conclusions?

  6. Mr. Hall: What difference does it make what is and isn’t called ‘Overhead?’ As long as BASIS gets the job done (better) within the monies allocated, THAT’S ALL THAT COUNTS! You’re simply trying to create a problem where none exists.

  7. Mr. Eskildson, I prefaced my comments by clearly stating I was writing my opinion, based upon oodles of relevant experience that is not necessary to detail. I ended my comments by saying, “you do the research, check the facts.” So I suggest you research something like “comparison of SAT scores of students graduating from charter schools vs. regular public schools.” That’s one place to start. Also research, “predictors of student success.” This way you can find the relevant data yourself, always the best way.

  8. I’m sorry, Ms. NaVeaux, the onus is on your to substantiate your claims. And you’re totally ignorant of a major problem with at least my local district, Scottsdale Unified – it’s very poorly managed. No goals, no linking rewards to success, very little Board attention to pupil performance. (Parkinson’s Law) My guess, based on what I’ve seen, is that this is typical.

    Yes, there is a strong correlation between SES and pupil achievement. HOWEVER, good U.S. charters have broken that linkage, and it’s far, far weaker in China etc. Part of the reason is increased parental involvement, another key component is better management.

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