BASIS Adding Private Schools

In theory, Michael and Olga Block should be among the nation's most celebrated educators. In a time of much handwringing over the U.S. falling behind other countries in education achievement, their Arizona-launched BASIS charter schools offer world-beating math and science classes -- and test scores show it's working. Students in Shanghai, Seoul and Helsinki have nothing over BASIS students.

Isn't this the good education news everyone wants to hear? Oddly, not so much. Block is the first to admit he's not being showered with accolades. Perhaps that's because the Blocks are equal opportunity disruptors, threats to private schools, public schools and public charter schools. Not surprisingly, those being disrupted resent the intrusion.

Their most notable disruption emerged only recently when the Blocks announced they would take their high intensity charter model -- a dozen charter schools so far -- and morph that into a separate network of private schools while still expanding the charter network. This is a first, and their move may qualify as the most under-reported-on education news of the last year.

It is not out of line to see this as a big middle finger aimed at the bitter education wars that in many cities block their plans to expand BASIS charter schools. Don't like us as a charter? We'll end-run you by creating private schools.

As for those elite private schools charging parents $40,000-a-year, BASIS Independent schools will offer what they consider a superior education for half that amount -- while challenging those expensive private schools to take the international tests and release the results, just as BASIS does. A very big dare.

Anyone running a private school in a city BASIS Independent enters, especially a second-tier school charging first-tier tuition, has to be worried. The first two private BASIS schools proposed to open next school year are in San Jose (tuition: $22,000) and the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn (tuition: $23,000). Chances are they will produce as good or better results at half the tuition of the elite privates. Next up are other schools in California and New York, and then on to other states and communities, where you can expect them to show in upper middle class suburban neighborhoods.

The BASIS private schools won't resemble private schools as you know them. Forget the blazers with school crests and the luscious lacrosse fields. BASIS Independent will offer sports, but don't expect to read about their sports prowess in the local papers. Not really their thing. There also won't be any fundraising, which takes pressure off their parents and allows the headmaster to focus on nothing but academics.

You can expect BASIS teachers to be a lot younger than the teachers at traditional private schools, and class sizes larger (20 to 25 students). There also won't be a big competitive scramble or standardized tests to win admittance. Apply, and you get in, as long as there's space. The only pre-testing is for math placement.

There will be an attitude difference as well. At traditional private schools, the rest of the world is viewed as a wonderful and fascinating place to be celebrated. At BASIS Independents, the focus will be more on competing with those countries. One example, in ninth grade at BASIS the only math option is pre-calculus.

The student body at BASIS Independents is likely to look a little different. In Silicon Valley, for example, the target parents are immigrants working in nearby high-tech companies. They got those jobs because they graduated from schools in their home countries that gave them rigorous educations, especially in math and science. Chances are, their local public schools, regardless of how affluent the student body may be, aren't offering the same academic fare. So, expect to see a lot of Indian, South Asian, Chinese and European families.

The charter school world is also less than enamored of the Blocks. Unlike most charter school operators who set out to rescue poor and minority schools from failing traditional public schools, Block doesn't care if his students are black, white or brown; nor if they are poor or wealthy. "I don't see students in terms of their race, or their ethnic origin. I was a poor kid at one time. So what? Education is the way to become non-poor."

The only BASIS school with a significant poor-and-minority student body is in Washington, D.C., where the student population is 55 percent African American and Hispanic and 27 percent poor (based on those qualifying for reduced-price lunches).

The BASIS mission is not to save poor kids; it's to offer a world-class education to all students willing to put in the work, including poor and minority students. Most students finish Algebra 1 by the end of seventh grade and they take two full years of logic. Students start taking Advanced Placement tests in eighth grade. It isn't for everyone.

"We have high expectations for what students can learn," said Mark Reford, the CEO for the private schools. "We want to do what Starbucks did for coffee: Raise the demand for a higher level of education."

You would think that offering a Starbucks-strength education would draw applause. Not always.

A version of this commentary first appeared in The Hechinger Report