By Linda Shaw
Seattle Times education reporter
Inside nine portable classrooms clustered on a school field north of Federal Way, students from the TAF Academy have built mini steam engines while studying the role science played in European colonization. They’ve developed mathematical models for world economic debates, and come up with ideas about how to run cars on wind.
The beige portables are so close to Totem Middle School, another Federal Way public school, that they look like they are part of it, but they’re not.
Under a contract signed four years ago, the academy grew out of a partnership between Federal Way Public Schools and the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), a nonprofit that works to prepare and inspire minority students to pursue careers in math, science and technology.
That agreement gives the academy, for students in grades six through 12, some of the freedom and flexibility that would be granted to charter schools if Washington voters approve Initiative 1240 in November.
The TAF Academy controls its own curriculum, its books, its approach to teaching. The foundation has a hand in choosing the school’s principal and teachers.
TAF also has been providing about $500,000 a year to supplement the school’s budget, which allows the school to hire some teachers and support staff members, and to buy technology such as digital microscopes and enough laptops for every student.
The results so far, based on test scores?
Above average and improving, but not among the state’s, or even the district’s, top-performing schools.
While supporters of Initiative 1240 often point to the stellar success stories among the 6,000 charters in 41 states, the reality is that most charter schools don’t do even as well as the TAF Academy has done.
Some states do a far better job than others of nurturing the higher-performing charters, but one often-cited 2009 study of charters in 15 states and the District of Columbia found that just 17 percent reported academic gains that were significantly better than regular public schools. Nearly half — 46 percent — performed the same, and 37 percent were worse.
“You can find, in every single location, a substantial amount of charter schools that are doing really, really well, but the results are always mixed,” said Macke Raymond, the lead author of that study, and director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University.
“And what does that tell us? It tells us it’s really, really hard to get it right.”
Trish Dziko, the Technology Access Foundation’s co-founder and executive director, has found that to be true in the TAF Academy’s case.
“I had no idea until we got our hands in there how difficult it is to try to accomplish what we are trying to accomplish,” she said.
Initiative 1240 marks the fourth time that charter-school supporters have tried to persuade Washington voters to allow the independently run public schools here.
The first measure was on the ballot 16 years ago, and the most recent was in 2004.
This latest campaign is being watched nationally to see if Washington voters have finally warmed to charter schools. If the initiative passes, Washington could be the first state where charters would open at the public’s behest, not through a bill passed by state lawmakers.
As in past campaigns, supporters include business groups and some of Washington’s richest residents, including past donors Bill Gates and Paul Allen, along with Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, and other wealthy charter supporters from other parts of the country.
About a dozen state legislators and a handful of education groups also back the measure, some of which are relatively new to Washington but have emerged as strong advocates for many of the education policies promoted by the Obama administration, including charter schools.
The measure’s proponents think charter schools, done right, have proved to be a good way to create innovative public schools and provide an option for students who otherwise would be stuck in failing schools.
Opponents include most of the Washington education establishment — the teachers union, the principals association, the groups that represent superintendents, school board members and parents. The state Democratic Party is against it, too, as are about three dozen state legislators.
They echo what’s been said three times before: Washington should spend its time and money improving the schools it has, not creating a separate set of public schools that have yet to show consistently good results.
Charters, they say, also would spread the already inadequate pot of money for public education in this state even more thinly. And if they attract the more motivated students, they could saddle existing schools with a disproportionate share of the harder-to-educate.
Research on schools
The research on charter schools is as contentious as the debates around them, with studies that reach opposite conclusions about whether charters are superior to traditional public schools.
Many of those studies focus on just one state or city, and some of those show that charters, on average, are posting better results in some grades and subjects than other public schools.
But studies that look at a number of states, including the one done at Stanford, conclude that the overall performance of charter schools is mixed.
Some charter-school supporters say such results taught them that state laws matter a lot. States that create strong charter laws and carry them out well tend to see better results, said Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
There is also some evidence that charters, many of which operate in cities, do a better job in urban areas, especially with students from low-income families and those learning to speak English.
Initiative 1240, Ziebarth said, builds on the lessons from the past 20 years, and, if passed, would come closer to his organization’s model charter law than any other state.
Washington, for example, would be one of only a few states where charters, if their performance sinks below a certain level, would, barring exceptional circumstances, close automatically.
That’s a step toward the strict accountability that charter supporters first envisioned as a trade-off for the flexibility charters typically are given.
Initiative 1240 also outlines how charters would be monitored, which Ziebarth said is also key.
Some people think charter-school laws are like a windup toy that just needs to be cranked up and let go, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College in New York who has studied charter schools. But he sees them as a garden that requires continual attention.
“If you’re not going to weed and water and nurture it,” he said. “you’re better off going to the supermarket and buying your tomatoes there.”
If charter schools had existed in Washington state in 2008, Dziko said, the TAF Academy probably would have become one. When she was looking for models of what she wanted to do, they were all charters.
Yet now she’s glad the TAF Academy is not a charter, even though charter status would give it even more freedom than it has.
If TAF were a charter, then Dziko’s foundation would be running the school. As it stands now, the foundation is the district’s partner. And as a charter, the TAF Academy’s teachers wouldn’t necessarily be covered under the district’s teachers contract, as they are now.
Dziko doesn’t oppose charter schools, but she’s not promoting them either.
She think I-1240 lacks clarity in some important areas, including how people would be nominated to serve on the state charter commission and how existing schools might convert to charters.
She’s come to believe that, for TAF, the disadvantages of operating a charter school would outweigh the advantages.
The only way she’d start a charter now, she said, would be in partnership with a school district. She values the cooperative relationship she has with Federal Way, which she thinks raises the chances that good ideas will be shared among many schools.
The biggest challenges for the TAF Academy, she said, have little to do with teacher contracts or other district policies that the school could ignore if it became a charter.
The hardest work is the day-to-day struggle of figuring out how to help all students learn. The word “charter” in a school’s name, she said, doesn’t mean it automatically will be great.