Above national average. Above state average. Highest regional composite ranking.
These are a few of the phrases that stand out in a recent letter from Haywood County Schools Superintendent Anne Garrett and Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte.
The missive is not so much an informational paean, extolling the school system’s triumphs as an offensive tactic, as a rebuttal to the call for across-the-board school reform. And more specifically to the local group that’s advocating it.
Tea for Education is an advocacy group whose central tenet is school choice. It’s headquartered on Walnut Street in Waynesville, and earlier this month, the group sent Haywood County Schools, along with county commissioners and local media, a white paper on school reform, accompanied by a letter requesting that it be read “with an open mind.”
And, said Nolte, that’s exactly what they did. But they’re pretty sure they’re fine without the paper’s suggestions, thanks.
“We very often have people come to us and say, ‘You need to use this program that’s used by so-and-so school and so-and-so state,’ but usually when we look at it, we’re outperforming the folks that they want us to be like,” said Nolte.
Bruce Gardner, a school reform advocate behind Tea for Education, said he was disappointed in the quick rebuff the school system shot back with.
“They’re right in being proud in their accomplishments. But if they think there’s no improvements can be made, well, you can always improve on anything,” said Gardner.
But from where Nolte sits, it did not take long to determine Haywood County is already doing more with less — and doing it better.
“When we have people who seriously ask us to look at something and consider something, we try and give them a response,” said Nolte. “I cannot pretend to know why they sent that to us. I don’t know if they’re asking us to change. But the point that I would like to make is if you want high-performing schools that spend less than almost everyone else, then we’re your school system.”
Tea for Education, headed by Haywood County residents Gardner and Beverly Elliott who are also active in the local Tea Party, put out the paper at the same time that they hosted screenings of the documentary Waiting for Superman, a recent lightning rod of controversy in the national school-reform debate.
The paper was put together by a Colorado group called the Centennial Institute, and lists tactics such as abandoning class size reduction, cutting administrative spending and revamping standardized testing, among others. The main idea is this: school budgets have increased over the decades, but test scores haven’t, so change is needed.
The research behind the paper is directed specifically at Colorado schools, but Gardner and Elliott believe that it holds lessons that can be applied anywhere.
“What our goals were in sending out the package were to send out information that has been developed in terms of improving education. When organizations spend a great deal of money working on how to improve a system, it makes sense to read and share it,” said Gardner, who noted that he was disappointed by what he saw as the schools’ failure to even give it a second look.
“I saw no instance from where they may have derived any kind of idea from it. It’s great to be proud of achievements, but I don’t understand their ingrained reluctance or fear of competition,” said Gardner.
Nolte, though, counters that, when it comes to school reform, why reform something that’s succeeding?
“We’re very supportive of school reform. We think low-performing schools should do better. We just hope and pray that people will not lump us in with schools that don’t perform well and ask us to make changes that will hurt our students,” Nolte said.
This means deeper cuts than the $5 million the system has already weathered and more staff axed than the 90 they’ve lost so far. Slashing more, or toying with proven models, said Nolte, will only diminish their pupils’ success. As of 2009, their per-pupil spending — $8,929 per kid — was already in the lower half, 65th out of 115 districts in the state. Administrators say this, combined with their test scores and other rankings, should be proof that they’re already doing more with less.
But Elliott and Gardner maintain that there’s always betterment to be had. They believe that widening the educational field will bring better options to what they see as a monopoly.
“We think the parent needs to have a complete menu of ways to educate their child,” said Gardner. Besides, he notes, it’s not the local school systems they’re focusing on. Their eye is on the broader, national debate, on affecting educational change on a systemic level. If Haywood schools are doing well, then that’s a win for everyone, and one less hurdle they have to jump.
“Then why are they showing Waiting for Superman locally, if they understand that we’re nothing like those schools?” queries Nolte.
And that’s a central piece of this debate, the documentary that has sparked fervor in school-reform advocates and fury in some educators.
The film is a look at the state of the nation’s public schools by director Davis Guggenheim, well known for the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
It highlights the country’s low performance in areas like math and science as compared to other developed nations — 25th in math and 21st in science — and puts the spotlight on notorious schools with dismal graduation rates and sinking test scores, as well as the lottery system used in larger cities for admission to the few flourishing schools.
The movie supports, in part, the school-choice mantra chanted by Tea for Education, especially with regard to public charter schools.
Right now, Haywood County has no public charter schools, and, said Gardner, the system could probably benefit both financially and academically if a few popped up. He and Elliot point to numbers saying that state- and nation-wide, charter schools can educate students for less than system schools, which would take some of the fiscal burden from districts facing deep cuts.
Nolte said he’s not against charters — as long as they can keep pace with the rest of the county’s schools in performance.
“Our job is to be really, really good and not use a lot of resources. If someone wants to start a charter school in our community, then we would say that they need to perform as well as we do with the same students that we do,” said Nolte.
Tea for Education isn’t fighting that point. Yes, they say, accomplishments should be lauded, and schools should be judged by them. But despite assertions by Haywood Schools that they are doing more with less, it’s still not enough — private schools and charter schools manage to do it for even less per student.
“We’re spending a tremendous amount of money on education, and this is not the answer,” Gardner said.
TEA for Education to hold June 7 talk
Bruce Gardner, founder of Tea for Education, will speak about school choice at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 7, at the Mountain High Republican Women’s Club luncheon. The luncheon will be held at the Lake Toxaway Country Club.
Rally to show support for public education
The Haywood County Democrats will hold a rally for education at 12 p.m. on Thursday, June 2, on the courthouse lawn in downtown Waynesville. Representatives from the community and various organizations will speak on behalf of public education.