Carol Burris is one of the most talented and thoughtful educators I have ever encountered. Fifteen years ago, I noticed the Long Island school where she was principal, South Side, was doing well on my list of the nation’s most challenging high schools. She opened her International Baccalaureate classes to all students and found ways to support those who struggled.
Now Burris — an author and former New York state high school principal of the year — has become an outspoken critic of a group of charter schools that also look good on the America’s Most Challenging High Schools list. The BASIS schools require Advanced Placement courses in nearly every high school subject, at least one passing grade on an AP exam and learning standards so demanding that eventually many of their families decide to go elsewhere.
“A close look at BASIS provides insight into how charter schools can cherry-pick students, despite open enrollment laws. It also shows how through the use of management companies profits can be made — all hidden from public view,” Burris said in a piece published in my Washington Post colleague Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet blog.
Burris noted that most BASIS schools have few students with learning disabilities or low-income parents. The schools ask for parent donations and scare off students who cannot adjust to the academic pressure. “The ‘rigorous’ curriculum of BASIS prevents prospective enrollees from transferring in after middle school,” she said.
This clash interests me because I also respect the founders of the BASIS schools, Michael and Olga Block. The Blocks are economists. They started their first school in Tucson because Olga thought the American school her daughter attended was feather-light on content compared with what Olga had experienced growing up in the former Czechoslovakia.
The company BASIS.ed manages 18 charters in Arizona, three in Texas and one in the District. A separate BASIS company operates five for-profit private schools in the United States, including one in McLean. Another BASIS company runs two private international schools.
At the BASIS DC high school, 19 percent of the students are from low-income families and 43 percent are African American, but BASIS schools in Arizona average only about 5 percent low-income, based on the extracurricular fee waivers BASIS gives those families. BASIS says its public charters are not operated on a for-profit basis. Burris says they are.
I will have more about the profit issue next week. In this column, I want to focus on another question: Should parents be allowed to have extremely challenging public charter schools, or are such places too destructive of access, balance and other educational values?
I asked Burris what she would say to parents who asked why they shouldn’t be able to put their children in schools that keep standards as high as BASIS does.
Burris’s reply was honest, but had an educators-know-best spin. “Parents want lots of things — some parents don’t want to vaccinate their children,” she said. If parents want “a school that teaches creationism and that black people are inferior, should they have that?” she said.
Equating AP classes with creationism doesn’t make sense to me, nor to many parents and students with big dreams. Mittida Raksanaves, a first-generation immigrant and veteran BASIS parent, said “it’s about time that a school in the United States takes the challenge to prepare our children to compete on the world stage.” Her son Jacob Pearcy, a physics major at Princeton, said “BASIS was the best possible high school experience I could have gotten.”
The Blocks’ schools are not for my family. The three Arizona BASIS schools in the top 10 of The Washington Post’s new high school list did not offer last year any of the sports that were vital to my children: baseball, golf, tennis and softball.
But arguing that some charter schools are bad because they teach too much will win few to Burris’s cause. She should instead continue to help create more great schools that suit her values. She is very good at that.