In Indiana, Business Groups Not Talking as One on Reform

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INDIANAPOLIS--In a sparkling office building in the heart of Indianapolis, the business group Community Leaders Allied for Superior Schools works for educational improvement from within the city's public schools.

In the same building, another corporate alliance, Commit Inc., works to leverage educational reform from outside the system, combatively pushing the Indiana legislature to adopt parental choice and increased school accountability.

And from the outskirts of town observers say seemingly from out of nowhere--yet another business entity, the Golden Rule Insurance Company, entered the educational arena last month. Bypassing the state legislature, Golden Rule offered its own privately funded choice program for parents seeking to flee the public schools for private education.

Addressing what they see as shortcomings in the city's public schools, the three groups have devised radically different plans of attack.

In so doing, observers say, the three efforts explode the perception of a powerful business monolith entering the educational arena with the same blueprint for change.

The Indianapolis efforts are worth watching, too, observers say, for what they might show about the future direction of school-business relations.

"It's probably good that the business community here is not monolithic," Thomas Binford, the president Of CLASS, said. "What we need to do is get everyone on the same road to improving education; the wider the road, the more opportunities to get on it."

Both Commit and CLASS were rounded in the summer of 1990 by many of the same business leaders from the city's and state's biggest industries.

After a series of public and private confrontations over reform philosophies, many of those co-founders have since chosen sides. Now, though they have separated, the two groups maintain contact and publicly hold that their agendas are compatible.

Golden Rule, on the other hand, is a member of neither, and, until last month, the company had never joined the education debate.

Its image as an outsider has fueled educator recriminations that the company's choice program is sabotaging the public schools while having no knowledge of what goes on inside them. ('See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991 .)

'Velvet Glove, Steel Hand'

Just how the three interact tells a broader story of business's growing power in the education arena.

"CLASS was rounded with the recognition that ]education reform] is a very complex problem that takes a long-term commitment," said Andre Lacy, president and chief executive officer of Lacy Diversified Industries and a founder of both CLASS and Commit.

"Commit came about more from businessmen clearly frustrated with educators' inability to even recognize they have a problem," he said.

Commit now speaks with "a velvet glove over a steel hand," he added, "and unless and until education recognizes it has a powerful dissatisfied customer, it will cause more radical solutions to be embraced."

Such a prediction threaten firms the worst fears that public educators hold about their new and powerful partner in the education reform movement. Over the past few years, as business's involvement in education has reached unprecedented levels, national education leaders have expressed strong concerns that business leaders accustomed to quick, top-down change at their command will grow impatient with the glacial movement of education reform.

Many educators fear that the corporate community will drop its longstanding deference to education experts and adopt more free-market approaches, including increased competition, education deregulation, and accountability. (See Education Week, July 31, 1991 .)

Perhaps nowhere have those fears come more into focus than in Indianapolis.

"You might be looking at the future here," said Carol D'Amico, a research fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, which helped draft legislation for which Commit found sponsors in the legislature.

The Commit Plan

Observers caution that what that future will be is not yet clear.

Commit had a energetic beginning, signing on the state's biggest industrial giants; blitzing the state with a message that education needed a radical redesign, not more money; and grabbing the attention of the business, education, and political communities.

In the face of the seemingly conflicting agendas of some joint CLASS-Commit board members, CLASS's first president, G. Thomas Houlihan, a former North Carolina district superintendent, resigned suddenly in February. He was replaced by Mr. Binford, a management consultant and former chairman of Indiana National Bank.

Mr. Lacy, seeking to clarify his support for public education, resigned from Commit's board, further focusing attention on strains within the business community.

The Indiana State Teachers Association and the Indianapolis Education Association launched an all-out war against Commit. The teachers' unions saw Commit as trying to "ram down everybody's throat" an agenda that had been devised behind closed doors with no educator input, said Brice Tresslet, president of the I.E.A.

The organization calls for bolstering early-childhood programs, establishing strict testing and performance accountability, deregulating the schools with site-based management, and parental choice.

But Commit faltered badly in the state legislatare.

Ultimately, the Commit-inspired legislation received two hearings in the legislature and went no further, said Kathy Poole, Commit's project coordinator and president of the Lawrence Township, Ind., school beard.

The problem, Ms. Poole acknowledged, is that the group neglected to build popular support for its proposals to counteract the strength of the state education associations.

This summer, Commit formed a separate, nonprofit foundation to build up support around the state for another round in the legislature. The foundation will also sponsor research and experimentation to back up its agenda, Ms. Poole said.

Ms. D'Amico of the Hudson Institute insists that Commit's effect is far broader than the organization has given itself credit. Numerous business groups from around the country have requested copies of the Commit legislation, she said, and the group has begun shaping the education debate in the state. Moreover, by laying out the choice debate in public, Ms. D'Amico said, Commit paved the way for Golden Rule's choice program.

'Outsider' on Center Stage

For now, it is Golden Rule that is in the spotlight.

The company's chairman, J. Patrick Rooney, has cultivated the image of a man unconcerned with the education, business, and political establishments in the state.

"We watched Commit and decided it's easier to freeze the legislature into doing nothing either for or against [choice] than to get them to take a stand," Mr. Rooney said.

Rather than joining Commit, Mr. Rooney pledged $1.2 million to underwrite the tuition of poor children seeking to leave the Indianapolis public schools or poor parents seeking help to keep their children in private schools.

For this year, 395 students have used the vouchers to leave the public schools, and another 353 students already in private education have received tuition assistance from Golden Rule, said Timothy Ehrgott, who coordinates the choice program.

Golden Rule was boosted this month when Vice President Dan Quayle visited Holy Cross Catholic School, which received 63 Golden Rule vouchers this year.

Calling the Golden Rule effort "noble and admirable," Mr. Quayle said, "Pat [Rooney] is doing what's right for kids."

"The fact that he's here is a big endorsement,'' said Mr. Ehrgott, as he and other Golden Rule officials worked the crowd gathered to see Indiana's native son.

Mr. Ehrgott and Mr. Rooney later huddled privately with the Vice President, with Mr. Ehrgott expressing appreciation that the company's controversial project is getting the kind of attention he had sought.

'Gallows Humor'

Alarmed public educators, meanwhile, have expressed serious misgivings about the momentum that choice advocates in the corporate community appear to have gained.

Mr. Tressler of the I.E.A. predicted that, given Commit's defeat in the legislature, other business leaders will side with Golden Rule to freeze out those trying to improve public education from within and take matters into their own hands.

Already this month, Eli Lilly & Company, whose C.E.O. Richard D. Wood, is a powerful member of Commit, has contributed $25,000.

"Golden Rule has fallen for the myth that the only decent education you can get is from the private schools," said Marilyn Granneman, a 6th-grade teacher at Public Elementary School 44. "The master teachers are not in the private schools. They're in the public schools."

"I took it as a real slap in the face ," added Cheryl Guindon, another teacher at the school.

Such opposition, according to observers, shows just how much on the defensive public educators in Indianapolis have become.

"It's a sign of a system so utterly overcome by anxiety that they don't realize the gallows humor of their own position," commented Denis P. Doyle, another education analyst at the Hudson Institute. "If Golden Rule is really a threat to public education, then public education is so termite-ridden that it won't stand on its own for long."

A Vision Problem?

For their part, CLASS leaders hope the flurry of publicity around Commit and Golden Rule will die down and allow them to gain the upper hand in the race to see who can influence school change in Indianapolis.

CLASS has studiously avoided ideology, channeling most of its efforts into teacher- and student-recognition programs, grants to fund innovation, and training activities for teachers, principals, and administrators.

Mr. Binford, CLASS's current president, has begun to receive recognition as a broker in discussions about the city's education problems.

He has been asked to sit in on contract negotiations between the teachers' union and the district administration, and he has weekly breakfast meetings with Superintendent Shirl E. Gilbert 2nd.

Mr. Binford said he hopes to turn the position of"honest broker" into a vantage point from which CLASS can begin to affect district policy, a move that the group has resisted thus far.

"Educators are beginning to look at CLASS as a real partner," said Marsha Foley, the principal of P.s. 44, which has participated in numerous projects with the group.

But some reformers outside the public school system see CLASS's efforts as classic "tinkering at the margins," with no overall vision of where the group would like the schools to go.

"I just don't understand what principles or framework they are operating on," Ms. D'Amico of the Hudson Institute said.

CLASS leaders insist that that is how it should be.

Taking the cautious line of such major business groups as the Business Roundtable and the National Alliance of Business, cLAss officials say education's problems are far too complex for such simple answers as choice.

"The reason our vision doesn't come through is this: Commit is an intellectual exercise," Mr. Binford said. "It fits together in the mind, but whether it works is not at all proven, and the downside could be quite dangerous."

"CLAss, on the other hand, does not say we know the answers," he added. "We just have to find the good things [in the public schools] and spread them out."

At the Crossroads

But Mr. Binford acknowledged that he was sensitive to such criticism and hinted that CLASS may start flexing more muscle.

He said, for instance, that CLASS plans to begin chiming in on policy matters that concern district management and education training.

Caught between pressure from Commit to get involved and from educators to stay out, Tom Friedmann, the vice president of CLASS and a former Washington, D.C., lawyer, admitted, "We're treading a fine line here."

Indeed, according to Mr. Tressler of the LE.A., CLAss has begun teetering toward the right. While Mr. Binford sees himself as an "honest broker," Mr. Tressler noted that CLASS has sided strongly with the district's administration in ongoing salary negotiations.

"CLASS has suffered a lapse," he said. "For whatever reason, CLASS agreed to be on the administration's bargaining team, and, for now, it has forfeited its role of broker."

According to observers, the story of Indianapolis's school-business relations stands at a crossroads.

The three groups vying to influence the future of education in the capital of the Hoosier State have educators and reform advocates on tenterhooks.

"What happens in the next few months will tell the story," Ms. D'Amico of the Hudson Institute said. "They're at a turning point."

Vol. 11, Issue 03, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as In Indiana, Business Groups Not Talking as One on Reform
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