Part III of the 3-part series

TUCSON  -- Onida Perkel spent hours pacing the Arizona State Capitol’s lobby while dozens of bills passed through the House floor. She’d shown up on an April morning this year to tell state legislators about how her experience with school choice had had devastating consequences for her daughter, Bree.

She had spent months trying to get BASIS Scottsdale Primary to provide special instruction services for Bree, now 11, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and severe anxiety attacks. Sometimes, Bree couldn’t sit still or keep on task. Her mother said teachers often scolded her.

“I just was always sad,” Bree said of the two years she attended BASIS schools, when she had two or three hours of homework nightly. Without special education services, her anxiety attacks worsened.

Because BASIS charter schools are public, they must serve every student picked from a lottery. But parents say students with disabilities or limited English skills often are pushed out later because they can’t get specialized services. Others are deterred from even applying.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics for the 2014-15 school year – the most recent available – shows only six English-language learners were enrolled at BASIS’ Arizona charter schools. But company spokesman Phil Handler says state data says differently: There were 28 – about 0.3 percent of all students enrolled in those schools, compared with the national average of 9.4 percent.

A spokesman for the national statistics center said the data reflects how states administer English-language learner program funds and not necessarily the exact number of students enrolled.

The average enrollment for students with disabilities was less than 2 percent across 15 BASIS charter schools for which data were available. That same year, 13 percent of all public school students in the U.S. received special education services.

BASIS charter schools are not a realistic option for some families because most do not offer free lunch or transportation. Its Washington, D.C., and Phoenix South campuses are the only ones that participate in the federally subsidized lunch program.

Peter Bezanson, the BASIS.ed CEO, said enrollment of students with disabilities or those who are learning English has improved in recent years, especially with BASIS’ expansion into primary grades across the country. It also has made efforts to open schools in low-income areas, including South Phoenix, and increase outreach to Spanish-speaking families.

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Peter Bezanson

BASIS does make curriculum modifications, Bezanson said. But it does it so that students “can reach our graduation requirements.”

“In other words, we might increase the amount of time or do something different with the math curriculum in middle school to better prepare them for calculus in high school,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights began investigating BASIS after a teacher filed a complaint in July 2014, alleging that she and others were told during mandatory training that BASIS does not modify its curriculum for students with disabilities.

On another occasion, the teacher was told that “students are failed/retained if they are unable to master their curriculum without modifications,” according to the complaint.

BASIS accepted a voluntary resolution agreement in 2015 in lieu of a full investigation. It agreed to submit its special education policies and drafts of in-service training materials to the Office for Civil Rights, among other things.

Onida Perkel’s daughter had a 504 plan, which by federal law grants modifications for students with disabilities. But her mother says she didn’t get any.

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Bree Perkel, 11, jumps around on the sofa as she takes a break from watching the show "Glee" on television at home in Phoenix.

After Bree struggled for months, the Perkels pursued an individualized education program, a blueprint for a child’s special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, in December 2015. It turned out that Bree needed special instruction for math calculation and organizational strategies.

Under federal law, an initial plan must be in place within 60 days of the first meeting. But a state investigation found it took five months of sometimes heated exchanges between Perkel and school administrators before BASIS Scottsdale Primary signed off on Bree’s initial plan.

And a plan came together only after Perkel filed a complaint with the Arizona Department of Education. Its investigation found that the school had not provided a proper initial placement statement. As a result, BASIS was ordered to pay for compensatory services, and the school’s special education coordinator was required to attend a dispute resolution course.

By then, in fall 2016, Perkel had decided to transfer Bree to a district school, where she finally began receiving special education services.

“I think where I got to was, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Perkel said.

Selling a philosophy

The BASIS philosophy is that any child willing to work hard can succeed at a higher level.

“3rd graders can think critically, 6th graders can learn Physics, and High School students can read Critical Theory and Philosophy,” the network’s curriculum overview says.

That philosophy sells, as evidenced by its steady enrollment growth. Politicians, educators and others have pointed to BASIS as a model for public education. And BASIS’ academic results are above average.

To graduate, BASIS high school students must take at least eight college-level Advanced Placement courses and six AP exams. In 2016, BASIS students graduated with an average of 11.5 AP exams, according to the management company’s website, compared with a national average of about 1.8 among students who take AP exams. BASIS students also pass AP exams at much higher rates – about 84 percent, compared with the U.S. average of less than 58 percent.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grades must earn 60 percent or higher in their final grades for every subject to move on to the next grade. Starting in sixth grade, students must pass comprehensive school exams for all subjects, despite widely accepted research that holding students back has no proven benefit.

With the way the BASIS curriculum is set up, it makes no sense for a kid to move on to the next grade without having mastered the content of the previous one, Bezanson said. A student simply could not move on to precalculus without having passed algebra 2.

“That’s inhumane, setting the kid up for failure or setting up the school to be a joke,” he said.

Parents and educators have said BASIS pushes out underperformers that way, saying the fear of a child being held back can serve as a strong motivation for parents to transfer a child out.

Bezanson said the vast majority of parents and students who decide to leave the network leave because they want something different, whether that’s more time for club sports or less academic rigor. It’s no secret that the BASIS curriculum is tough, he said.

“People can choose to come to us because of who we are, and when people choose to leave us to go somewhere else, that’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “I mean, we want to keep as many kids as we can, but the key to the school choice movement is choice, and a student leaving us to go to another school has exercised that choice.”

'She snapped'

At BASIS Tucson North, teacher Andrew Sterling’s fifth-grade daughter lasted just 10 weeks. That was in 2013. She desperately wanted to do well, her father said, but struggled almost immediately.

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Andrew Sterling, a former teacher and parent of a BASIS Tucson student.

She was stressed and tired, Sterling said, and developed a urinary tract infection because she didn’t feel like she had time to use the bathroom between lessons.

“She snapped,” he said. “It was kind of like a circuit breaker.”

Disillusioned, Sterling transferred his daughter to a public school in their home district. When he went to unenroll his daughter, school administrators asked whether he was going to quit, too.

He told them that he’d stick around until the end of the school year – that was the right thing to do for his students. But he wouldn’t stay any longer than that. Disagreeing with the school’s pedagogy was one thing; seeing his own daughter suffer was another.

“There’s no doubt if you just look at the business of BASIS, it’s a success,” he said. “The question is whether parents are fully appreciating the problems that are underlying that model.”

Yoohyun Jung produced this story as a Reveal Investigative Fellow. The fellowship, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Democracy Fund, provides journalists of color support and training to create investigative reporting projects in partnership with their news outlets. She can be reached at 573-4243 or yjung@tucson.com. Follow her on Twitter: @yoohyun_jung.

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