BASIS and DC: Achievement Gap Mania Strikes Again

The arrival of the BASIS charter school in DC has drawn a slew of barbs. BASIS, which currently runs eight schools in Arizona, seeks to offer an enriching, accelerated liberal arts education to its students. The results thus far are impressive, with two BASIS schools consistently ranked in the Top 10 nationally, and many of its students taking 10+ AP tests before graduation.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, critics have suggested that the incredibly rigorous BASIS model with its emphasis on love of learning, mastery in STEM subjects, and preparing students to compete in the global economy is a poor fit for the “demographic” of Washington DC. As Skip McKoy, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board has said, “I’m all for high standards. I’m all for excellent curriculum. Kids should be pushed. But you have to recognize the population.” Mark Lerner, a member of the board of Washington Latin charter school also argued that BASIS “blatantly markets itself to elite students” and is “a direct affront to the civil rights struggle so many have fought over school choice for underprivileged children.”

Now there are about 45,000 kids in DCPS and more than 70,000 school-age kids in Washington DC, so the notion that there aren’t a few hundred who would stand to benefit from a phenomenally challenging academic environment strikes me as bizarre. In this morning’s Washington Post article, Khazan points to criticism that the school will not be able to “meet the needs of low-performing, English-language learners and special education students.” Are these critics suggesting that students who would benefit from BASIS don’t deserve a school that meets their needs? The BASIS school is a public charter school — all parents have the opportunity to enroll their children. And the notion that families and students in DC shouldn’t have access to a high quality liberal arts curriculum just because many students in DC need something more remedial in scope strikes me as a perverse vision of “social justice.” (For more on this, see my 2011 National Affairs piece, “Our Achievement-Gap Mania.”)

Arguing that DC should only welcome charters that have the mission of boosting proficiency in reading and math seems a surefire way of shortchanging kids who are capable of much more. Truth is, we need schools focused on basic proficiency and we need BASIS – we need schools that serve all students. Just to put a fine point on it, the BASIS student population almost exactly reflects the demographic makeup of DC. While cofounder Michael Block unapologetically notes that “BASIS is not a school for everyone,” I find it hard to understand why people would imagine that only suburban parents and students should have access to the kind of remarkable academic experience BASIS offers. In my experience, there are lots of kids and families across America who would want and deserve such opportunities, and I think it’s a damn good thing that BASIS is bringing them to DC.

-Rick Hess

This blog entry originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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