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Centers To Expand Linkages Between Businesses, Schools

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Two national business organizations will launch this spring resource centers that could expand the increasingly important business-school connection to include small, community-based businesses as well as corporate giants--and substantive reform as well as so-called "partnerships."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is establishing a Center for Workforce Preparation, which officials say will canvass education-reform initiatives for successful programs and practices that can be disseminated to local chambers of commerce.

The National Alliance of Business, meanwhile, is inaugurating a Center for Excellence in Education, which will assist businesses, community organizations, and government agencies--including mayors' offices--in forming local coalitions to work for educational improvement. Much of the NAB's membership comes from local private-industry councils, or PICs.

The centers are expected to build on the momentum generated by The Business Roundtable's announcement last fall of a major education initiative, and by the continuing work of the Committee for Economic Development in the area of early-childhood education.

The Business Roundtable, a group of the nation's top corporate leaders, has pledged to pair the chief executive officer of a major corporation with the governor in each of the 50 states to work on 10-year plans for education reform and restructuring.

"These efforts will help forge long-term coalitions between business and education," said Frederick S. Edelstein, senior policy fellow at the NAB "And all of them focus on systemic change."

Involving Small Businesses

Mr. Edelstein stressed also that the NAB. center and other similar efforts will help the business-education-partnership movement spread into communities that may not yet be involved in such coalitions.

Though a broad array of businesses nationally have been engaged in pushing for and supporting education reform, he and others said, the major corporations have so far been the most active and visible leaders.

But the participation of local businesses in communities of all sizes will be needed, they said, to build grassroots support for educational change and to sustain progress made to date.

Jill Sheldrup, who is setting up the U.S. Chamber's center, said that project in particular is expected to boost small-business activities in education. Nearly 85 percent of the U.S. Chamber's membership is made up of owners of small businesses.

Until now, small businesses have had a mixed record in supporting reform efforts. Many have been willing to become involved in such relatively limited undertakings as adopt-a-school programs, but few have moved into the more substantive reform projects.

That limited involvement is due largely to limited resources--both financial and human.

Small businesses lack the financial reserves needed to give large grants to schools, and they do not have the manpower to enable staff members to devote substantial amounts of time to partnership programs, Ms. Sheldrup and others said.

In some cases, small businesses facing tough economic circumstances have not been willing to support tax initiatives designed to aid education.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, for example, was a notable opponent last year as statewide initiatives that would have increased the sales tax to provide more funds for education were defeated.

In Kentucky this year, however, business' emerging sense of the interrelatedness of school reform and economic development may have been more in evidence. There, the state chamber of commerce supported both a 1 percent increase in the corporate tax and a one-cent increase in the sales tax to boost education funding.

Across the nation, according to Ms. Sheldrup, local and state chambers of commerce have recognized the importance of the business-school equation by adding education committees to their governance structures.

The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which has added an education department headed by Ellen Hayden, recently hosted an education-reform seminar that 25 local chambers took part in.

"Most of the people there were ready to move beyond the partnerships that are just the 'feel good' kind," said Ms. Hayden. "A lot of the locals are ready to go a step higher."

The U.S. Chamber's center will provide such local groups with information about successful programs elsewhere that may turn interest into action, Ms. Sheldrup said.

"The whole idea is to begin to support a bottom-up approach to reform," she explained. "There's a lot of successful, results-driven partnership activities going on nationwide, but there never has been a comprehensive effort to share that information."

'Skills in Scranton' Example

Austin J. Burke, president of the Scranton, Pa., Chamber of Commerce, compared the center's function to a "transfer of technology."

"This will literally speed up the grassroots process," he said. In Scranton, the chamber recently initiated a project called "Skills in Scranton" that will bring business leaders and educators together to, in Mr. Burke's words, "help us keep a finger on the pulse of what skills we need in our community and then put together specific programs for them." The project will involve both precollegiate and higher education.

The chamber initiated the "Skills in Scranton" project, Mr. Burke said, for many of the same reasons businesses across the country are getting involved in education: "a classic mismatch of jobs available and the skills of workers."

One feature of the project will be the provision of mini-grants to teachers and schools for special programs that cannot be funded in the regular school budget.

Though smaller communities have fewer resources to commit to partnership programs, Mr. Burke said, the more manageable scale of projects there can be advantageous, especially in plotting systemic reforms.

"We can turn things around fairly quickly," he said. "But if a city like New York or Los Angeles wants to make a turn in their economic, labor, and education courses, it's like turning around a supertanker."

Involvement cannot be categorized by the size of the business, Mr. Burke stressed, but rather should be judged by the commitment of the chief executive officer.

"If you have a large business, with a committed c.e.o., you have more resources to accomplish things than a committed fellow who runs the neighborhood grocery store," he conceded. "But while it's nice to have the chairman of Xerox running around the country talking about the changes needed in education, the person who is going to get the local school board to change the curriculum or adopt a special program is probably the neighbor who runs the grocery store."

Mr. Edelstein of the NAB agreed: "Small businesses may not have the resources, but that doesn't mean they don't have the knowledge or interest. That's why coalition-building is so important."

Creating Coalitions

Forming local coalitions will be the focus of the NAB center, which will build on an earlier initiative called the "Corporate Action Agenda."

Through that program, materials were distributed nationally that provided a blueprint for business leaders, mayors and their staffs, schools, and community organizations interested in putting together broad-based coalitions for education reform.

The center will serve as a permanent resource for such groups and a place where those interested in aiding the reform process can learn step-by-step approaches.

"We will work with specific companies to develop internal plans and strategies for involvement in education," Mr. Edelstein said. "And the focus will be to get businesses to take a more broad-based approach that involves a variety of people in the private and nonprofit sectors, parents, labor officials, government entities, and schools."

Such coalitions will allow smaller businesses and organizations in communities across the country to play a part in helping reform to take root, he said.

"Through coalitions, small businesses can offer just as much as big businesses, making the whole enterprise more productive, successful, and long-lasting," he said.

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