Arizona and the Case For School Choice

From the Arizona Republic:

Five of the nation's top 10 high schools are in Arizona — and they're all branches of the same charter school.

According to U.S. News and World Report, Basis Scottsdale is the nation's top-performing high school, followed by Basis Tucson North and Basis Oro Valley. Basis Peoria and Basis Chandler were ranked fifth and seventh, respectively.

The rankings consider students who exceeded state standards, graduation rates and college preparedness, according to U.S. News.

Two additional Arizona charter schools, along with two "special function" public schools, made the top 100.

Arizona was one of the earliest adopters of charter schools in 1994, and it continues to be at the forefront of school choice. However, the state has some of the lowest school funding and teacher pay in the U.S.

I love that last line.  Makes one question if the obsession on teacher pay and funding for bloated school administrations really is the key to education improvement.  I wonder if when the Arizona Republic writes their inevitable next article on Arizona having lower teacher pay they will add a clause that says "However, the state has five of the nation's 10 top charter schools".

This is a fascinating article and I encourage you to read the whole thing.  The article gives plenty of space to opponents of school choice and charter schools:

[Arizona Education Association President Joe] Thomas said any public school district in Arizona could replicate the Basis model if they were also allowed to work only with a small number of high-achieving students and "force the rest out of your school."

This inference that Basis gets its results by carefully cherry-picking students is undermined by facts from the same article:

There are no entry requirements or exams to get into a Basis school — just a game of luck. An annual lottery determines which new students are accepted.

Already, Basis schools have received 15,000 applications for 1,000 open spots for next school year, Bezanson said.

To be fair, since Basis does not participate in the free school lunch program and the city school bus program won't deliver kids to Basis, there are kids that probably are not able to apply, but again, this is far from a case of cherry-picking.  It is a case of setting very high expectations and expecting kids to achieve that.  Thomas's comment on this reflects the different philosophy of teachers unions vs. school choice folks:

Thomas said Basis schools are great for the small minority of kids who can succeed in the high-pressure environment. But most students don't — and public schools have the expectation to teach all students.

This is partially true, the Basis approach is not right for all kids, but given they have 15 applications for every 1 open lottery spot, it is right for a lot apparently.  But the difference in philosophy is that public school advocates want to force the Basis kids that are able to achieve at a high level into dumbed-down, plodding schools, moving no faster than the lowest common denominator.  School choice advocates, on the other hand, also acknowledge this difference, but rather than enforcing a one-size-fits-all public solution, advocate for a thousand flowers to bloom with many different school solutions.

There are many other charter schools in town that do a great job with kids of different needs.  My wife and I support a Teach for America teacher at a charter school in South Phoenix.  The kids in her class are mostly all Hispanic, many have parents that do not speak English and a high percentage are on the school lunch program.  These kids may not be quite at the Basis level, but they out-achieve most of the Phoenix public school system and are well beyond what kids from similar demographics are doing in local government schools.


  1. Mike:

    Taking gaming of the U.S. News rankings (which heavily weight AP tests) to the logical extreme -- offer only AP courses! It's remarkable that they are getting kids to pass more AP tests than the top magnet schools. Though also confusing when only 81% of their students are proficient in English and 90% in math (based on the state tests -- worth noting both rates are much better than the state average of 40%).

    It seems to be a good fit for a lot of kids, so great that they have the option. Hopefully they are getting college credit for those AP tests.

  2. Peabody:

    I believe the rankings also factor AP test performance in their rankings. The rankings consider the percentage of kids taking an AP class and the percentage passing an AP test. But it is an interesting thought and could provide a boost depending on how they calculate the AP courses. They should calculate it as the percentage of students who take an AP test, not merely take a class called "AP". Perhaps they already do this.

  3. johnmoore:

    I support AZ Catholic Schools - they did a good job with my daughter - and contributions to them are treated the same as contributions to, say, Basis.

    All of this is great - we have some of the best schools in the nation due to our policies, but the left hates it. we know where their priorities are.

  4. ToddF:

    "This inference that Basis gets its results by carefully cherry-picking students is undermined by facts from the same article:"

    You expect a union thug to tell the truth? That right there is evidence enough that government unions need to go. People that blatantly lie to the very people they serve are not fit for a seat at the table.

  5. ErikTheRed:

    Public schools are one of those weird things I sit back and watch with a slack-jawed WTF expression on my face. In a world that has optimized productive efficiencies in nearly every area, the endlessly bloating overhead is hardly the worst "feature" these obsolete behemoths have to offer. The fact that students are arbitrarily lumped together into groups based mostly on age and street address and then all taught via methodology that hasn't changed much in the past, say, 500 years just blows my mind. And the specifics of the methodology are continuously reinvented by hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are of middling talent at best.

    In what other area of life would people not be lining up to burn these things to the ground and start over? Public schools are like what you'd imagine as the result of a bunch of very smart people working on some horrible thought experiment to try to determine the most dystopian way to waste money, crush individuality, and deliver a result that is probably worse than what we would get if we just kicked back and did absolutely nothing. If 40% of the kids can read after 12 years of school, with the technology we have these days I can just about guarantee you that more than 40% of kids would be reading if there was no school at all.

    Almost nobody looks forward to growing up and being a loser. There's better material for learning available for free on the Internet than most kids are exposed to in school. About the only thing we would need on an individualized basis is directing kids to the style of instruction best suited for them.

  6. Mike:

    It's all based on tests, not the courses. Once U.S. News filters down to the top 12,000 schools nationally (using reading and math scores, disadvantaged student scores, and graduation rates), the entire ranking is based on
    1. % of seniors taking at least one AP test (25%) + % of seniors passing at least one AP test (75%). The max score is 100% if all seniors pass at least one AP test
    2. To break ties, % of seniors taking/passing AP tests in at least 4 out of the 7 AP content areas (English, Math & Computer Science, Sciences, World Languages & Culture, History and Social Sciences, Arts and AP Capstone)

    The catch is that "passing" a test (score of 3 or higher out of 5) doesn't mean the student will get college credit -- many schools require 4s or 5s, or don't give any credit depending on the subject. So for a student whose future college won't give credit in the subject, or who is unlikely to get a 4 or 5, taking that test may just be a waste of $100+. There often isn't a reason to take that many AP tests, unless the school requires it.

    Still, impressive results considering that the student population is entirely self-selected with no application or testing.

  7. kidmugsy:

    "methodology that hasn't changed much in the past, say, 500 years"

    Oh I dunno; it seems to have deteriorated substantially in the last 50 or 60 years.

  8. ErikTheRed:

    I was trying to be kind. Insulting teachers too much invites lynch mobs these days, you know. Again, it weirds me out that they have this crazy, mythical status in our society. I remember school. Most of the teachers I saw were worse than useless. Maybe 5% or 8% were solid performers, and I only saw two or three in my entire public school experience that I remember as being truly outstanding (and I was consistently in schools that were recognized for "excellence" at either the state or national level). I saw far more that should never be left unsupervised around children, let alone allowed to teach them.

  9. Craig:

    Our three sons were all in the Scottsdale "gifted" program. They all started out at least in the 95th percentile nationally on their first-grade tests. I watched each year as their national percentile rankings declined. I watched my gifted math students bring home assignments to use alternative calculation methods such as Egyptian math and others. Rather than drill as necessary to learn multiplication tables etc., students were taught to use whatever method they felt comfortable with. My youngest brought home Sudoku puzzles for math homework for weeks on end. We had no choice but to turn to Kumon to supplement his instruction.

    When my oldest was heading to 5th grade, I was getting desperate. I started looking for Charter alternatives. Great Hearts didn't start until 6th grade. Finally, I heard about BASIS Scottsdale, which started with 5th graders. We went over for a visit in June and immediately signed up for the waiting list. I researched the Saxon Math texts used at Basis and loved them. They could have been used in the 1950s in almost any US classroom; no new-math crap! After the first day of school, we got a call from BASIS that there was an opening. We never looked back. All three of our sons graduated from BASIS Scottsdale.

    BASIS was a lot more work for us than the Scottsdale schools would have been. There was no bus service, so we had to put a car pool together for two 21-mile round trips each day. I made as many as five trips some days with after-school events.) There were no school lunches, so we had to either make lunches or purchase lunches through the Boosters club (staffed by parent volunteers). 700 kids were crammed into a facility that was designed from doctors' offices and would have been crowded with 400. There was no gym. Our basketball player had to play home games ten or 15 miles from the school. (The new BASIS Scottsdale high school is reportedly a huge improvement, but came too late for us.)

    The boys had a lot of homework almost every night. The competition was fierce. A lot of kids transferred to traditional high schools after 8th grade. They wanted a more traditional high-school experience and they were very well prepared for high school.

    BASIS is not perfect. They have had numerous, frustrating growth pains. The administration was not known for communications or soliciting parental input. But it was all worth it. All three boys are studying engineering and are doing very well in college.

  10. Jomama:

    That is so narrow minded these students don’t show up one day & decide that they are taking AP courses. I think you are failing to recognize the time commitment over years from the parents to make sure their child achieves which is something lower income parents do not invest.