Five of the nation's top 10 high schools are Arizona charter schools
According to U.S. News and World Report, Basis Scottsdale is the nation's top-performing high school. Mark Henle/azcentral.com
PHOENIX — 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 & 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.
State leaders used news of BASIS' high education rankings to tout a new school funding plan that would reward high-achieving schools with additional per-student funding.
Rigorous curriculum, limited seats
For the past several years, BASIS schools placed near the top of the annual rankings, but this year marks the first time BASIS captured the top three spots.
"It's especially wonderful to say we're three of the top three. It's great to be that highly ranked," said BASIS.ed CEO Peter Bezanson.
Bezanson said the secret to success lies in recruiting the best teachers and giving them teaching freedom.
The schools follow the College Board's Advanced Placement standards, and students are expected to take — and pass — AP tests. The average BASIS student passes 11 AP tests by graduation, Bezanson said.
BASIS operates 18 schools in Arizona, varying in offerings from kindergarten through 12th grade. A vast majority of BASIS high-school students started with BASIS in middle school or earlier, Bezanson said.
"We do a great job preparing kids in elementary and middle school," he said. "Almost no one transfers into BASIS in high school."
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.
'Our school isn't for everyone'
All of BASIS Scottsdale's 82 high-school seniors graduated last year, and all of them took AP tests.
Kristen Jordison, BASIS Scottsdale head of school, said the students' success is owed to the teachers, nearly all of whom hold a degree in the subject area they teach, which adds "content knowledge and excitement."
Only a limited number of students can attend BASIS Scottsdale, and the demographics of students there don't match the demographics of those attending other Arizona schools.
According to last year's Arizona Department of Education data, more than 80% of students at BASIS Scottsdale are white or Asian. Just under 5% are Latino.
The school has few English-language learners, few students with disabilities and it does not participate in the free- and reduced-price lunch program.
Jordison said the school's demographics come down to school choice. BASIS Scottsdale does not prevent any demographic from applying — but it can't force students to apply.
"Our school isn't for everyone, but we certainly provide the opportunity to anyone that wants this level of education," Jordison said.
But certain barriers, such as the high performance expectations and lack of school-provided transportation, make it unlikely that students with economic hardships would ever apply, according to Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas.
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."
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.
He called the annual rankings "bogus" because they don't include context and over-focus on test scores.
"It would be like ranking football teams on how well they punt. You're looking at one aspect of an education," Thomas said.
Christine Marsh, 2016 Arizona teacher of the year, agreed that test scores and national rankings don't show the whole picture.
"I wish these rankings could compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. By nature of them being charter schools, they can cap enrollment, which we can't do, and we end up with significant staffing issues," Marsh said.
Bezanson said the BASIS model can be replicated to teach more diverse students, and his team would like to be the one to do it. But they can only do it with adequate funding.
He said he's supportive of Gov. Doug Ducey's results-based funding plan that would reward high-achieving schools with an additional $250 per student.
"We want to put schools everywhere. We want every family to be reasonably close to a BASIS school so they can choose that sort of school for their children," Bezanson said.
BASIS has added between two and five schools each of the past several years, he said. The newest location will be in south Phoenix.
Bezanson said students accepted to a BASIS school "have gotten lucky." He wants to spread the luck to more kids.
"There's a lot of kids who didn't win and they went to a different school. It's a really sad thing; it's really too bad," he said.
Ducey said in a statement: "National recognition like this is what attracts new, exciting companies to our state, so let’s keep it going by rewarding these great schools for the work they're doing and investing in other public schools so that educators are empowered to continue excelling."
Ducey pitched his plan as a way to boost high-performing schools, especially in low-income areas, but an Arizona Republic analysis determined it would most benefit the state's richest district and charter schools.
Thomas said Ducey's plan destroys the idea that public education "is the great equalizer."
"It picks winners and losers. It takes money away from districts that have students who need to overcome the most challenges and gives it to districts that have students who are already overcoming the challenges," he said.
Contributing: Alia Beard Rau, The Arizona Republic. Follow Jessica Boehm on Twitter: @jboehm_NEWS