Tim Steller: Column about Basis, UHS hits nerves on both sides

2013-05-10T00:00:00Z 2013-05-22T09:51:12Z Tim Steller: Column about Basis, UHS hits nerves on both sidesTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 10, 2013 12:00 am  • 

No school arouses passions around Tucson like Basis does.

My column Sunday argued that the high rankings received annually by Basis Tucson and University High School don't reflect much more than the schools' academically focused student bodies and their Advanced Placement emphasis.

I received dozens of emails and calls in response, most of them agreeing, some rising to the defense of Basis, and a few about UHS. The Basis Schools are charter schools, and UHS is part of Tucson Unified School District.

Northwest-side resident Patricia Franco wrote to me about her eighth-grade son, Thomas: "Thank you so much for your recent column on Basis and UHS. You put into words my own thoughts on Basis (not too familiar with UHS). I'm very tired of people trying to talk me into enrolling my brainiac son in Basis. He'll do just fine at CDO or Ironwood Ridge and without a nervous breakdown from too much pressure."

Brian Reilly, who moved his family from China to Tucson last year so his daughter could attend Basis, wrote: "Basis is not for everyone, but for those that can stick it out, Basis molds students of character and teaches them to love learning. It is anything but a factory to spit out high-achieving students from the cream of the crop."

In Tucson these days, some parents feel judged if their kids don't go to Basis, and others feel judged because they do.

But the passions surrounding Basis go deeper than that. The schools' founders and leaders have been leading activists in the education-reform movement. Craig Barrett, the former Intel CEO who lives in Paradise Valley and advocates for charter schools, is president of the board of directors.

Wherever they open, Basis schools also represent a threat to traditional district schools and private schools by attracting some of the district schools' highest-performing pupils and giving a free education that rivals that of many private schools. The Basis Schools were even called "The 21st-Century Solution" to America's education problems in a 2009 documentary movie.

"I think they are important because they signify that charter schooling is not just about better meat-and-potatoes education for disadvantaged children," Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, told me. "They can offer a rigorous education for any child up to the challenge."

"They demonstrate without a doubt that there is an appetite for broad, demanding instruction," he added.

Whether they demonstrate something more than that - that is, whether Basis offers a new model for education in the U.S. - is a bigger question. It arises because people keep pointing to the school as one that makes American kids competitive globally. On April 2, for example, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman quoted a report citing Basis Tucson North students' strong performance on an international test as evidence of what American education can be.

Tucson Unified School District Superintendent John Pedicone told me it's wrong "if somebody thinks that Basis is the model or panacea for public education. It isn't, any more than University High School is."

But Basis is attractive for parents like Brian Reilly, the man who moved from China last year. I met him Wednesday while visiting Basis Tucson North, 5740 E. River Road. He told me how he, his wife and sixth-grade daughter, Sunny, had lived in China for years when he began investigating schools across the United States by Internet and chose Basis.

Starting last fall, Sunny's English was good but not great, Reilly said, and Basis helped her with one-on-one attention as well as its regular teaching of study skills and time management, he said.

Students I spoke with at Basis were open-minded about the question of whether their focus on Advanced Placement courses is a good thing and whether the rankings it creates are a good measure of quality. However, most insisted they are hard workers and good thinkers who don't just spit out memorized data.

Whether they represent more than that - optimal parental choices or cutting-edge education - is what riles people up about Basis.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter.

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