A Dangerously Good Charter School

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The high-ranked Basis school in Scottsdale, Ariz., wants to expand, but some residents—along with public schools—are raising “safety” concerns.

By ALLYSIA FINLEY
Feb. 18, 2016 6:53 p.m. ET
Arizona is becoming something of a California suburb as Golden State retirees, young families and workers move next door in search of cheaper housing, well-paying jobs and better schools. In 2014 alone, 22,000 Californians relocated to Arizona—more than the number of newcomers from all other states combined.

The influx of new residents is inciting a backlash against growth in the upscale Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, where denizens have mobilized to block the expansion of one of the highest-performing schools in the nation. Given that the school is a charter, the “community safety advocates” are being cheered on by local public schools.

In 2015, U.S. News & World Report ranked the Scottsdale school run by the Basis charter-school operator, grades five through 12, as the top charter and second-best public high school in the country. All Basis students take AP classes, and 96% pass their exams, compared with 57% nationwide. More than 90% of students scored proficient in math on state tests while only about half of students districtwide do. The school is particularly well known for its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and foreign-language programs, which include Mandarin and Latin.

Like most charter schools, Basis Scottsdale doesn’t offer teacher tenure. Teachers are paid bonuses based on the number of students who pass AP exams with high scores. The school randomly selects students by lottery and has drawn many middle-class Asian families to the area with the promise of a free, top-flight education. There are nearly 1,200 students on the wait list.

The Basis Scottsdale school’s current facility, which holds 740 students, is cramped. It has no gym or playground. So in January, Basis purchased a nine-acre plot of vacant land about a mile and a half away for a new two-story complex with modern science labs and a full-size gym. Basis planned to convert its existing campus into an elementary school that could enroll 520 new students.

The proposed expansion has sparked an outcry from residents who claim the new school would increase traffic congestion and imperil “public safety.” At a neighborhood meeting in December, one man who had heard about Basis’ plan announced that he “was prepared to spend six figures to make sure this school doesn’t happen.” Another said of the school that “when the first kid dies, their blood will be on your hands.”

The firestorm is reminiscent of the satirized town-hall meetings on the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation” (“Where are my kids supposed to play, the rock quarry?”). The school’s foes have hired a lawyer and traffic engineer. Jonathan Gelbart, Basis’ director of charter school development, says that opponents have been regularly filming traffic at the current campus and even flew a drone overhead.

New building developments almost always increase traffic, but Basis worked with city officials on a plan to reduce the school’s impact. And in Arizona, charter schools are exempted from the Development Review Commission process. This hasn’t stopped opponents, who are now trying to derail the project on a technical point. They have asked the Scottsdale City Council to refuse to abandon an easement on the property, which would stymie construction. The council will vote on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Meanwhile, project opponents are getting an assist from public-school parents and teachers. The Scottsdale Unified School District has said that some public schools may have to close because private and charter schools have reduced their enrollment. In a newsletter this month, the Parent Teacher Organization at nearby Mountainside Middle School warned that the new Basis school would be “dangerous” and could limit residents’ “access to their homes in case of a fire or emergency.”

All politics may be local, but the Scottsdale brouhaha echoes the squabbles over development that commonly occur in affluent California enclaves. Where Californians go, so go their political neuroses.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.

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