Florida Watchdog recently interviewed Peter Bezanson, CEO of the BASIS.ed school network, one of the nation’s top performing charter school networks, with a mix of 26 charter and private schools, including one in China.
At a recent hearing of the PreK-12 Innovation Subcommitte in the Florida House of Representatives, Bezanson and representatives from other high-performing charters discussed how their schools were successfully closing the achievement gap and what they would need to enter new states and new markets. Bezanson spoke with Watchdog about the outlook for Florida. The interview was edited for clarity.
You’ve identified BASIS’s four top policy needs: curricular freedom, hiring freedom, funding and independent charter authorizers. What type of prospect is Florida?
I think it’s great. Our preliminary examination indicated that there would be no real problem with our model in Florida, and there’s a lot of real positives. … Arizona, where we’re headquartered, has tried to copy Florida in a lot of these regards. Not only is there curricular freedom, but there is the spirit of rewarding performance, that the better a school does, the more money they get from the state. Kind of performance-based pay for [Advanced Placement] scores of students, so on.
Teacher certification came up as a potential stumbling block in the hearing. What’s your take on Florida’s policies?
Teacher certification is something in Florida that we can live with. I would rather have complete freedom to hire, but as far as I understand the current status of the law in Florida, it’s pretty good.
You can hire a teacher with a degree in physics to be a physics teacher, and then he or she has three years to pass a couple of tests and take some classes in education in order to go from a provisional certificate to a full certificate. That’s completely doable. Again, it’s not ideal, we’d prefer to have complete freedom to hire and complete freedom to train our teachers as we see fit, without the need for them to take additional classes, but it’s workable.
You’ve said that you like to be above the national average in terms of per-pupil funding. Is Florida’s funding level consistent with BASIS’s needs?
It’s OK. It’s not among the highest in the country, but it’s certainly also not among the lowest. I don’t know where it stands vis-a-vis the national average, but it’s a bit more than we get in Arizona and a bit less than we get in Texas. So it’s within the range of where we can make it work.
What about your preference for an independent charter authorizer?
That’s the one that’s the most problematic for us in Florida. There’s a district authorizer, meaning the districts are the authorizers with some sort of appeal mechanism to the state. BASIS doesn’t like that. We want to stay out of politics, we don’t want to have an authorizer that doesn’t want us there and then it has to be forced on them by the state. We would prefer the statewide authorizer or the independent authorizer, removing the district altogether. And then again, in a state like Florida where the districts are the authorizer, our great preference would be to find an authorizer who actually wanted us to come, a district that would be excited for us to come. And then partner with them, versus enter into any sort of acrimonious relationship.
Do you have a feel for any districts that might be more receptive?
We haven’t gotten that far in exploration. I’m sure there are. Florida has a lot of charter schools that serve a lot of different student demographics and have a lot of different focuses, so it’s a very broad and deep charter market. So I’m confident there are such districts.
Looking ahead to 2020 expansion, you’ve mentioned Colorado and Florida as main contenders for the next state you enter. What would Florida need to change to pull ahead?
The problems are almost identical in both states, which is why we’re not there yet. In both, there are district authorizing issues. In both cases, you have modest per-pupil allotment. Not horrible, but modest. And in both you have workable though not perfect teacher certification issues. So for us, it’s probably on the authorizer standpoint. And if Colorado were to move in the direction where they had an independent or statewide authorizer that was actively pursuing bringing charter schools into the state, then we would be much more likely to go there. And same with Florida. If Florida were to really look to an independent or statewide authorizer, and get active in trying to bring in outside charter operators to open in the state, then we would go to Florida.
Does either state have better odds?
I think there’s a much greater likelihood that would happen in Florida than Colorado. And the only reason I say that is because Florida and individuals there have been specifically holding hearings in order to bring high-quality outside operators to the table to talk to them about what it would take to bring them to Florida. And there’s nothing like that happening in Colorado. Or if there is, we haven’t been invited.
What made it easier to build a school overseas before here in Florida? (BASIS currently has one school operating in China with another scheduled to open next year.)
It’s hard to compare the two, because they are international schools that are private, and so the regulations that apply to private schools and our ability to open them are completely different than anything in the states with public charter schools.
The better point of comparison is why have we continued to expand so rapidly in Arizona and Texas, but yet taken so much time to go to a third state, like Florida, or like Baton Rouge, where we’ve submitted a charter application. And in that case, it’s just the regulatory environment in Texas and Arizona make it really easy for high-quality schools to expand. That’s another thing that’s further down the list of conditions that make it it likely we come to a state. But on that list is certainly the ability to replicate easily and quickly once we have a great school. That’s the case in Arizona and Texas.
Did these policy conditions that make it easy for you to keep replicating in Arizona exist when BASIS began 20 years ago?
I think it was in the 2005-2007 time frame where the authorizer board enacted a replication application, working with [the National Association of Charter School Authorizers] to design it. That’s when the growth of charters exploded here in Arizona beyond just one-off mom and pops to larger organizations opening multiple schools. And it fundamentally changed the market. And for the better, I think. But it’s now more difficult for a new applicant to get a charter and much easier for an existing charter to get a new campus, as long as you’re high-quality.
What does the public school system look like in the markets that BASIS considers?
Where the public school system is very good, preparing kids for world-class college educations and universities, then it doesn’t make sense to come into that market with new schools of choice.
It’s a lot easier to come into a place where either the reality or the perception is that the metro region needs something different that’s high quality. We can come in anyway, because we do something that’s very different and unique in terms of a curriculum model, but it’s better for us to find markets where there’s an obvious need for high-quality education. I don’t know enough about the Florida sub-markets to know where there is need and isn’t need
One of the education concerns in Florida at the moment has to do with over-testing of students, how that takes away from instructional time and forces teaching to the test. Over-reliance on testing is one of the criticisms I’ve heard about BASIS, as well. How do you respond to that?
It really depends on the test. We put a high degree of emphasis on students developing mastery and content knowledge. What we’ve done at the high school level is go all-in on the [Advanced Placement tests], so we have third-party validated tests that cover mastery and content knowledge. And once you get beyond those tests, they move into capstone courses and senior research projects. We don’t culminate in tests, in other words. The AP courses culiminate in a test and that test is important, but the school culminates in investigative work and discovery work for which the necessary condition before that is real content mastery. As long as the tests are good tests, and they’re testing the right things, then there’s absolutely no problems in teaching for those tests.