Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Dr. Raymond, Please Meet Mr. Kenneth Boulding

Wikipedia describes Kenneth Ewart Boulding as “… an economist, educator, peace activist, poet, religious mystic, devoted Quaker, systems scientist, and interdisciplinary philosopher. “ Indeed, Ken Boulding was all of those things and many more. At the University of Michigan in the 1950-60s, he founded the General Systems society with Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Born in Liverpool in 1910, he was educated at Oxford (Masters degree).
His textbook, Economic Analysis (1941) was virtually the introduction to Keynesianism to American academics. He never obtained a doctorate, though surely he never felt the want of one due to the many honorary doctorates he received. In his long career, he served as president of the Amer. Econ. Assoc. and the AAAS, among other organizations. He died in Boulder in 1993.

I was very lucky to be situated at the University of Colorado when Boulding left Michigan in 1967 to join the Economic Department at Boulder. I had joined the faculty there in 1966. Within a few years the word spread that this new fellow in Economics was someone to listen to. Twice, in the early 1970s, I sat through his undergraduate course in General Systems. The undergraduates had no idea how lucky they were; I was enthralled. Boulding was a Liverpudlian, and that coupled with a pronounced stammer made listening to him lecture extremely demanding. But somehow the effort produced greater concentration. I can recall so many of the things he said though more than 40 years have passed. “”The invention of the correlation coefficient was the greatest disaster of the 19th century, for it permitted the subtitution of arithmetic for thinking.”

From 1969 through 1971, I was editing the Review of Educational Research for the American Educational Research Association (AERA). In the office, I enjoyed a few small privileges in connection with the 1971 Annual Meeting. For one, I could invite a speaker to address the assembled conventioneers. I invited Boulding. An expanded version of his talk was published in the Review of Educational Research (Vol. 42, No. 1, 1972, pp. 129-143). I have never read anything else by an economist addressing schooling that equals it.

Here is the merest sampling of what he wrote:

Schools may be financed directly out of school taxes, in which case the school system itself is the taxing authority and there is no intermediary, or they may be financed by grants from other taxing authorities, such as states or cities. In any case, the persons who receive the product-whether this is knowledge, skill, custodial care, or certification-are not the people who pay for it. This divorce between the recipient of the product and the payer of the bills is perhaps the major element in the peculiar situation of the industry that may lead to pathological results. (pp. 134-135)
Boulding originated the notion of the “grants economy” in which A grants a payment to B who delivers a service or product to C. Of course, this turned on its head the paradigm used by most economists, who imagine C paying B for services or products. When Boulding referred to this grants economy underlying schooling as leading to “pathological results,” he was referring to the fact that the schooling industry is “not normal,” i.e. does not follow the course of classical economic models. In the years ensuing since Boulding’s early forays into this notion, the grants economy has become increasingly important to understanding a nation’s economy.

Boulding was considered a bit of a rebel. David Latzko wrote of Boulding that “The narrow bounds of the economics discipline could not contain his interests and talents.” Perhaps this accounts for why many traditional economists have not followed him where reality leads. Perhaps this is why Dr. Margaret Raymond could pronounce so recently that “And it’s the only industry/sector [schooling]where the market mechanism just doesn’t work.” In fact, the “market mechanism” fails to work in many sectors.

But back to Dr. Raymond. Margaret Raymond is the head of the Hoover Institution’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes. As key researcher in charge of the first big CREDO study of charter schools that dropped on the charter school lobby with a big thud: charter schools no better than old fashion public schools, some good, some really bad. And then more recently, CREDO under Raymond’s direction conducted a study of charter schools in Ohio, a locale that has known its problems attempting to keep charter schools out of the newspapers and their operators out of jail. What did this second CREDO charter school study find? Charter schools in Ohio are a mess.

All of this bad news for the charter school folks caused Dr. Raymond to go before the Cleveland Club and confess thusly:

This is one of the big insights for me. I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And it’s the only industry/sector [schooling] where the market mechanism just doesn’t work.
Of course, it is positively absurd to think that schooling is the only “industry” in which free markets just don’t work. And Dr. Raymond didn’t give up entirely on the free market ideology for education — she would probably have to find a professional home outside the Hoover Institution if she did. She went on to tell the Cleveland Club that more transparency and information for parents will probably do the trick.
Frankly parents have not been really well educated in the mechanisms of choice.… I think the policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement.
So parents just aren’t smart enough to be trusted to make choices in a free market of schooling, and they need more information, like test scores, I presume. I’ll leave Dr. Raymond at this point, and recommend that she and her associates at the Hoover Institution spend a little more time with Kenneth Boulding’s writings.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of the National Education Policy Center, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mirabile Dictu! State Departments of Education are Political!

Brad McQueen is a teacher in Tucson, Arizona. He’s suing the State Superintendent of Instruction. I’ll try to make a long story short.

McQueen was appointed to the Department of Education standardized testing committee. The State Board of Education adopted the Common Core in 2010. But McQueen spoke out against the Core in a book entitled The Cult of Common Core. And he followed that up with some negative comments about Common Core in a podcast on a Tucson radio station and in an article in a Phoenix newspaper. This proved to be a little too much insubordination for the Superintendent’s office, according to emails flying around between Associate Superintendents: “FYI regarding a teacher named Brad McQueen. He is on a roll criticizing AZCCRS [Arizona College & Career Ready Standards]. … just thought you might want to check your list of teacher teams [from which teachers are selected to serve on committee].” The Deputy Associate Superintendent to whom the email was addressed replied that a note had been placed in McQueen’s file. Shortly thereafter he was uninvited from Department of Education committees. McQueen wants a) the negative notes purged from his file, b) to be reinstated to the committees on which he served, and c) attorney fees.

McQueen’s case struck a resonate chord in my memory. Back in the 1990s, I was invited to serve on an AZ Department of Education committee. Our committee was to advise the Department on a test that would be given to persons seeking a teaching credential in the state of Arizona. The contract for test development had been let to a company in New Hampshire. The test was a paper & pencil multiple-choice test in which the examinee was presented with a classroom situation and asked to pick the best action to take. We warned to company about the arbitrariness of cut-score problem, to no avail; they assured us that the Angoff Method would be used. That this assurance gave us no comfort was passed over with no comment.

But let’s back up. There were 6 or 8 of us on the Technical Advisory Committee. The Chairperson was a professor from the University of Nevada Las Vegas who specialized in measurement. He flew into Phoenix in the morning for the meetings and flew home that evening; round trip air-fares between Phoenix and Las Vegas in those days were about $70. Two or three representatives of the New Hampshire company were present at every meeting of our committee.

Our committee eventually arrived at the point where we said that we could not vouch for the technical adequacy of the proposed test unless a validity study were done. In other words, let’s have observers spend some time in the classrooms of certified teachers, rate their performance, and then see if the paper-pencil test can distinguish the better teachers from the poorer one. This position taken by the committee did not sit well with the people from New Hampshire. It would cost money — money not written into the contract. But our committee stood firm, for a while.

Before the next meeting of the committee could be called, we members received a letter from the Associate Superintendent of Instruction. Our services would no longer be needed. We were being dismissed. The reason? The Department could no longer afford to fly the Chairperson into town from Las Vegas. In point of fact, the Department was spending more money on bagels and coffee for the committee’s breaks than they were spending on the chairperson’s plane ticket.

Shortly thereafter, word spread that the Department had reconstituted the technical advisory committee under the chairmanship of a professor from East Lansing, Michigan. None of the previous committee members was serving on this new committee, and this new chairman’s views on high-stakes testing were known to be much less critical than ours.

No one sued. Life went on. I suspect that most of us simply accepted the fact that this is how things are done in an office in which the head is the third highest elected position in the state government. Maybe we should have reacted how Brad McQueen has done, twenty years later.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Another BASIS Charter School Mother Speaks

I received this feedback from a mother of a former student at a BASIS charter school. The note was stimulated by an earlier posting on this blog about problems at BASIS schools. I haven't asked the person's permission to post her thoughts here, so they will appear anonymously.
Dear Dr. Glass:
This morning, I read your post of Jennifer McDowell's encounter with BASIS, Inc., Charter School. My daughter, who is an exceptionally gifted student but also has moderate asthma, attended the school for three years. I was so relieved to read, for the first time, a more realistic viewpoint of the school, as for the last two years, I have tried to explain to others how the national high school ranking for the school as published by U.S. News is only reflective of test scores for a much smaller student body than in most public schools, and the ranking also does not reflect quality of education for the majority rather than the minority. My daughter currently attends a larger school, however, the school's sole purpose is not to compete in the number of AP tests and scores the students take and develop the school's curriculum based on those AP tests, but rather on how to best educate the entire, and larger student body that is very diverse in many ways including physical and intellectual abilities. Thank you for your post.

Sincerely.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of the National Education Policy Center, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dear Teacher, You Are Not the Most Important Thing in the Universe

The Arizona Republic has a very conservative Editorial Board for a very conservative newspaper in a very conservative state. So when they address the subject of teacher preparation, it’s no surprise that they parrot folk wisdom about schools and teachers.

In addressing Arne Duncan’s new guidelines on teachers colleges, the Editorial Board strikes its closing notes by perpetrating one of the more pernicious myths about teachers and schools.

Plenty of research has come to a common-sense conclusion: Nothing is more important to the success of a student than a highly qualified teacher. But we don’t have enough of them, nor will we as long as teacher colleges are not held accountable.
Now that’s a statement that packs a big load of deceit into just 43 words. First, it’s highly doubtful that the Arizona Republic Editorial Board has made itself familiar with “plenty of research” about education. Second, in their review of “plenty of research,” apparently their faith in the ability of test scores to hold teachers colleges “accountable” was never shaken?* But worst of all is the repeat of that tired wheeze that nothing is more important than a teacher.

What makes the All-Important-Teacher myth so pernicious is that teachers themselves occasionally and the general public usually take it as a compliment when in fact it is an attack on teacher tenure and professional autonomy.

The facts of the matter are that teachers are not the most important thing determining what a child gets out of school. What a child brings to school is much more important. Jim Coleman showed this in 1966 in Equality of Educational Opportunity, and though he softened his position slightly in 1972 when he accorded a bit more important to schooling that he had 6 years prior, out-of-school influences remained dominant in determining how much kids learned during their years in school. Parents, home and neighborhood conditions, physical health, language use and language complexity in the home, whether the student lives in a psychologically and physically healthy environment with access to competent medical care, access to books, games and activities that prepare the student for school, and even genetic endowment can greatly contribute to or restrict a child’s development. What walks in the door on Day #1 has more to do with what leaves on Day #2340 (180 X 13) than what transpires during the few hours of students' lives that they are in the classroom, attentive, and capable of absorbing what that teacher is talking about.

Teachers are wonderful human beings. For many children, teachers are the most caring and competent individual whom they will encounter during their lifetime. But teachers cannot undo the damage inflicted on youngsters by a society in which nearly half of all births are to unwed mothers and in which more than 20% of children live below the poverty level (income below $23,000 for a family of 4).

So, my fellow teachers, beware. Don’t fall for the false compliment that you are so important — so important that you should be fired if your students’ test scores are lagging behind, so important that your school’s graduation rate is a moral and a civil rights issue, so important that you should be replaced by an inexperienced liberal arts major on a two-year resume building junket.


*Just take a look at Bruce Baker’s analysis of the absurdity of judging teachers by their students’ test scores.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Friday, November 28, 2014

David Berliner Tells Arne Duncan How to Do Teacher Education Right

Improving Teacher Education

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration want to improve teacher education. Me too. I always have. So I went to the president of the university I was then working at and showed him university data that I had collected. I informed him that a) we were running the cheapest program on campus, even cheaper to run than the English Literature and the History programs; and b) that some of our most expensive programs to run, computer science and various engineering programs, produced well-trained graduates that left the state. But teachers stayed in the state. I told my president he was wasting the states resources and investing unwisely.

I told him that with the same amount of money as we spend on the students that leave the state I could design one year clinical programs so every teacher does clinical rotations in the classrooms of schools with different kinds of students, rotations modeled on medical education.

I said more money was needed to pay the teachers recognized as expert, say Board certified teachers, so I could place teachers in training to observe the regions’ best teachers. I said that more money would also allow me to design video labs for viewing great teaching and for doing micro-teaching so that future teachers could experience, in safe environments, how to teach. In such micro-teaching classroom they would receive feedback on how they taught from the students they just taught and from supervisory teachers who work in the laboratory. I modeled my proposal for a lab on the then newly outfitted kinesiology laboratory of which the university was quite proud.

I said that more money would allow me to buy a five bedroom house in the lowest income community and have teachers who volunteered to spend two weeks there under the tutelage of the communities leaders — their priests and ministers, their concerned parents, the social workers there. The teachers would be the guests of the community and we would pay the community leaders to feed the teachers, to take them on tours around the neighborhoods so they can learn about the strengths of these communities, not their deficits.

I said more money would allow me to provide a one-year support system for all new teachers placed in our region. The support would be provided by clinical professors of practice that visited each new teacher from our university about every ten days. Their job would be to help the new teachers emotionally (teaching requires a great deal of emotional labor), to help them schedule time (teaching requires enormous time commitments) and to provide instructional support. I estimated that would cut the rate of teachers leaving the profession by half. A savings of significant amounts of state and local monies.

The president listened to my proposal and when I was through, he politely threw me out of his office! Charles Baron policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, quoted in the New York Times said it well: “I think you need to wake up the university presidents to the fact that schools of education can’t be A.T.M.s for the rest of the college or university.” Although so much is wrong with the policy recommendations of Democrats for Education Reform, in this case they sure have it right!

David C. Berliner
Emeritus Regents' Professor
Arizona State University


The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of Arizona State University.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Arizona Appeals Court Rejects Charter School Lobby's Claims

A Maricopa County (Phoenix) Superior Court earlier rejected arguments by the charter school lobby that they should receive per pupil allocations equal to those of the traditional public schools. I wasn't present when that issue was argued in court, but I can imagine how lame the arguments for equal funding must have been. Charter school students are funded at an amount about $1,300 below the funding of traditional public school students. Differential funding of charters is common in most states.

The plaintiffs argued that the Arizona Constitution requires a "general and uniform" system of public education. "Uniform" to them meant same dollars. The argument must have sounded pretty hollow to the court when it is obvious to all that charter school offer greatly reduced programs, seldom hire support staff, usually provide no transportation, and pay teachers below scale — all the while overpaying school directors and favored staff (like relatives).

So when the plaintiffs appealed the lower court's decision to the Arizona Appeals Court, they got the same reception: lower court decision upheld on November 18, 2014. The plaintiffs had no case, but they had plenty of chutzpah.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Are Charter Schools Greenhouses for Innovation and Creativity?

The rationale for the charter school movement went something like this: "Public education is being crushed by bureaucratic regulation and strangled by teacher unions. There is no room left for creative innovation; and tired, old, traditional educators have run out of energy and ideas. Let free choice reign!" It sounded good, especially to people who were clueless about how schools actually run. How have things actually worked out? What new, revolutionary ideas have come out of the charter school movement that can teach us all about how to better educate the nation's children?

Recently I had the pleasure of traveling to a southwestern state to spend a day discussing 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools with a large group of teachers, school administrators, school board members, and college of education faculty. These occasions are always enlightening for me, and I always come away from them with an enhanced sense of confidence in professional educators.

Among the audience were two young people who took advantage of one of the breaks to initiate a private conversation with me. They had read the 50 Myths book and felt that my co-author and I had dealt unfairly with the charter school topic. To put it bluntly, Berliner and I had written that in our opinion the vast majority of charter schools were underperforming traditional K-12 public schools and that the charter school industry was shot through with fraud and mismanagement. I don't think that the fraud allegation applied to these two young people, and I doubt that the mismanagement charge did either. And they clearly felt that I was uninformed.

The young man graduated just a few years ago from Yale with a degree in history. The young woman was a UCLA alumna with a sociology degree. He was Academic Director of a pair of local charter schools serving poor, urban children; and she was Director of Research and Assessment. Both had left positions with KIPP very recently. I didn't ask why. They felt they were doing great things in the inner-city. I advised them to leave the charter school industry and work in the public schools. They said that charter schools are public schools. I said that I doubt it.

The afternoon session wound up with a free-wheeling "open mike" audience discussion about "50 Myths." My young charter school friends took one more try.

Young Man: "You seem to ignore the fact that charter schools offer parents 'choice." And 'choice' is what they are asking for."

Me: "Why is 'choice' an unconditional good? A crack addict chooses drugs. Consumers make bad selections all the time, and unregulated markets are notorious for offering people options that are not in their best long-term interest."

Young Man: [Silence]

Young Woman: "Charter schools are places where we can innovate and create new ways of doing things. That freedom will let us all learn how to run better schools."

Me: "Give me one specific, concrete example of what you have created that we can learn from." Young Woman: [Silence]

Young Man: "I'll give you one. We are adopting the International Baccalaureate for our two schools. Every kid will get an IB diploma."

A woman in the front row turned in her seat to address the young people who had just spoken.
Educator: "We introduced the International Baccalaureate in your district ten years ago. Families can choose to enroll their children in it if they wish. We have had to carefully counsel them because the IB is not a curriculum for all students."
So much for innovation and creativity in the charter school industry.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Friday, November 7, 2014

What Have Charter Schools Taught Us About Education?

Of course, the theory — if you care to call it that — behind the charter school movement is that if you take off all bureaucratic regulations and allow the free market to operate there will be unleashed a tsunami of energy and creative innovation in the charter sector that will teach all of public education how to do a better job.

Incredibly, the Rupert-Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal still believes such nonsense.

What have charter schools taught the true public school sector?

  • You can raise test scores by discouraging poor or special needs kids from enrolling;
  • You can raise test scores by pushing out kids who do poorly on tests;
  • You can make yourself look desirable by lying about "waiting lists";
  • You can manage your public image through marketing & public relations;
  • You can run an economically efficient school by hiring inexperienced, uncertified teachers.

But the charter school movement hasn't shown anyone how to run a better school.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Facts Behind the Arizona School Finance Case

Arizona schools are currently suing the state for unpaid bills. The case goes like this:

In 2000, the voters passed a referendum that mandates regular increases in state funding to account for inflation.

For several years around the Great Recession, the Legislature cut funds and ignored the inflation mandate.

The schools claim that the Legislature is $1 billion in arrears.

The matter will be settled in a Phoenix courtroom.

In, interviews for television, lawyers for the state hold out the frightening prospect that an unfavorable decision from their perspective might actually result in a INCREASE IN TAXES! To bolster their position, they claim that avoiding a tax increase would necessitate a reduction in services, for example, the Legislature would have to cut the budget of Child Protective Services (an agency that was recently discovered to have not followed up on more than 6,000 reported incidences of child neglect and abuse).

The schools position is that "a law is a law" even if instituted by a referendum; and, anyway, doesn't everyone know that Arizona K-12 schools are horribly underfunded and have been for decades? Actually, the claim of poverty for K-12 education in Arizona is a bit of an exaggeration. The state is highly "urbanized" — in fact, one of the most urbanized in the U.S. because a very high percentage of the population lives in two metropolitan areas (Phoenix & Tucson). This results in a dearth of small rural schools that suffer "economic inefficiencies of small scale."

So the funding of K-12 education in Arizona is not nearly as bad as people think, nor is the state's economy in such bad shape that it can't afford to meet its legal obligations.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Monday, September 29, 2014

How Charter School Owners Feather Their Nests & Other Conflicts of Interest

Many people in one of my home states — Arizona — seem to have no concept of a conflict of interest.

When charter schools were authorized in Arizona in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t long before a young woman “researcher” at the Goldwater Institute was appointed Chairperson of the State Charter School Board. And that very same Chairperson quickly issued a charter to a non-profit foundation — that was really an artifice created by K12 Inc. — that created the Arizona Virtual Academy (AVA), a huge cybercharter. Then Arizona Virtual Academy soon hired that very same Chairperson as its Director, who decided that all materials and services of the AVA would be purchased from K12 Inc. And before long and shortly after the Chairperson resigned from the State Charter School Board, K12 Inc. hired Chairperson into the position of Senior Vice President for Education, and Policy & External Affairs. So you see, this person is not only the director of one of the largest online Charter schools in the nation, but she also serves as a vice president of the company from which her charter school purchases nearly everything. (Incidentally, AVA is the cybercharter that got caught outsourcing essay grading to India.) Anybody have a problem with this? Not in Arizona.

One of the first brick-and-mortar charter schools in Arizona was named Citizen 2000. In the middle of its second year of operation, its 1,000 enrolled students showed up for class only to find a note of the door informing them that Citizen 2000 was closed for business. The Director was on her way to Chicago for good. She had been paying her divorce lawyer out of school funds, paying her mother’s mortgage, and had hired her sister as assistant director at an exorbitant salary. I was being deposed in a FOIA case by an Assistant Attorney General at about that time, and I asked whether the state had plans to pursue a case against the former Director of Citizen 2000. “No, we’re not interested.” Fine, so seemingly nobody in Arizona cares about conflicts of interest.

However, now and then the powers that be in Arizona will come down on some small fry in an attempt to prove that they are policing double dealing. Years ago, an assistant superintendent of public instruction got canned because he was running a textbook company on the side while subtlely suggesting to teachers and administrators that he knew where they could buy some really good textbooks. More recently, a school board member in a suburban Phoenix school district was nearly indicted when it was discovered that the board on which he sat was contracting with his HR company for some minor services.

Why then, is a blind eye turned to massive conflicts of interest in the charter school domain?

Consider the case of BASIS charter schools. If you have spent the last 15 years in Antarctica without internet access and no subscription to US News and World Report, then you probably haven’t heard of the BASIS charter schools. BASIS operates about a dozen charter schools, mostly in Arizona but also in San Antonio and Washington, D.C. BASIS is the creation of Michael Block, a retired econ professor from the University of Arizona. To read what the media write about BASIS, this econ prof has discovered the magic bullet, the secret to taking ordinary students and turning them into National Merit Scholars with their pick of any Ivy League college. But the truth is that BASIS charter schools — which claim to admit students only by lottery — put out a sales pitch that scares the bejeebers out of any parent whose kid isn’t already National Merit potential and then flunks out 90% of the students with a daunting gauntlet of tests from elementary grades right up to high school. By the time of graduation day at a BASIS charter, the elementary grades have been winnowed down from 200 to two dozen students. Based on graduates test scores and college acceptance rates, gullible outlets like US News and World Report rate a couple of BASIS schools in the top ten in the nation. Ridiculous, of course.

Some conflict of interest concerns have been raised about BASIS schools in the past. It was discovered that BASIS had been outsourcing bookkeeping services to Block’s wife’s relatives in the Czech Republic. Small potatoes. The really big potatoes are only now coming to light. BASIS has heretofore operated as a private corporation. Even though their revenues come almost exclusively from public money, they have refused to divulge even the most basic financial information. But for some unknown reason, BASIS Scottsdale — another one of the top ten high schools in the U.S. — has been operating as a non-profit for the first few years of its existence. Consequently, they must file an IRS Form 990 and report some financial information. IRS Forms 990 are publicly available. Voila!

And here’s what BASIS Scottsdale’s 990 Form looks like for fiscal year 2012. You can download a copy here.

It would take two accountants and three lawyers to decipher Form 990 for BASIS Scottsdale. But to an even moderately skeptical eye, a couple things stand out.

  • BASIS Scottsdale took in more than $32,000,000 in taxpayer money, close to 93% of its total revenues.
  • Roughly half ($18,593,866) of the revenues were paid as “Salaries & employee benefits.” The other half was paid for “Other expenses.”
  • Then on page 38, one finds that BASIS Scottsdale charter school is purchasing its employees and “management services” from its parent company’s Director, Michael Block:
The $18,593,866 that BASIS Scottsdale paid their teachers is exactly the amount the school paid its Director Michael Block to lease employees from his private company. And in addition, Block received more than $7 million for “management fees.” (In the prior year, Block received $14.5 million for the “subject specialists” he leased to the school and $5.2 million for management.) How much managing does one little school of a couple thousand kids require?

So we see that more than $30,000,000 was paid out to a private vendor who happens to be the owner of the very charter school paying out the cash, and there is no transparency whatsoever on how that money was spent. Obviously, much of it went into the pockets of uncertified “subject specialists” (as BASIS prefers to call its teachers), and some of it went into the pockets of “managers.” How much of it went into Michael Block’s pocket will remain unknown. One can speculate that all the other BASIS charter schools are similarly leasing “subject specialists” from Michael Block Unincorporated and buying management services at the same store. We’ll never know.

Perhaps even doing business in the shadows is still too much accountability for BASIS schools, because their newest venture is a BASIS school in Silicon Valley which will be wholly private. Ironically, when BASIS Scottsdale was launched a few years back, it was advertised as a private school; but when the fall term came around and fewer than 10 students had enrolled, it quickly converted to charter school status. Crony capitalism is always safer than that nasty free market.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.