Heritage Foundation Turns Up Pressure On Business Groups To Embrace Choice
By Jonathan Weisman
Accusing key business groups of watered-down education agendas and lukewarm support for the Bush Administration, the Heritage Foundation has heated up a campaign to push the organizations into embracing parental choice.
In recent publications and meetings, the Washington-based conservative think tank has hit the National Alliance of Business, the Business Roundtable, and the Committee for Economic Development with a barrage of criticism focused on the charge that the groups have flouted rank-and-file business opinions by shunning support for choice.
"There is a noticeable difference ... between business groups at state and local levels, and national organizations," said the foundation's newsletter, The Business/Education Insider. "The former are eager to challenge the political status quo; the latter seem often to pay only lip service to fundamental change and more likely in practice to mimic the positions espoused by the education establishment."
Another edition of the newsletter accused the business groups of "taking a back seat in the Administration's campaign to win Congressional approval" of the President's America 2000 education package.
Those messages have been carried to the 2,000 names on the newsletter's mailing list as well as at Heritage education seminars in Dallas, Philadelphia, and Detroit.
Although they at first ignored the Heritage Foundation's criticisms, the groups say they have now been forced to respond. Michael Caputo, a spokesman for the N.A.B., noted that a dozen callers over the past two months have demanded to know why his organization does not support either choice or America 2000.
"It seems to be coming to a head," he said.
'Not Missionaries for Choice'
All three organizations insist that Heritage is badly misrepresenting their positions. They have accepted choice, they contend, but believe it is just one aspect of education reform and should not be overemphasized. "The three organizations are singing from the same song sheet on choice," Mr. Caputo said. "We're all supportive of choice, but we're not missionaries for choice. Maybe that's a sober realm beyond the reach of the Heritage Foundation."
Mr. Caputo accused the think tank of trying to use education to regain the prominence it had during the early years of the Reagan Administration.
"It looks like they're trying to muscle their way back to the table," he said.
As for America 2000, all three are firmly behind it, said Sandra Kessler Hamburg, the c.E.D.'s education-research director, while adding that certain aspects of the plan have raised doubts among leaders of the business groups.
Those aspects boil down to choice, according to Jeanne Allen, education-policy analyst for Heritage.
"They're supporting educational choice the way the [National Education Association] supports educational choice," Ms. Allen asserted. "It's such a compelling issue that they have to take some position. They don't want to oppose it and bear the consequences, but since they're [Washing@on] insiders, they can't support it."
But leaders of the business organizations say their support of choice as part of a broad education-reform framework is a well-thought-out and reasonable position with no political motivations.
Harming Research Effort?
The business groups also warn that the Heritage Foundation's attacks are beginning to have harmful consequences.
The reason, say officials of the business groups, is that many corporate leaders view America 2000 as being identical to the New American Schools Development Corporation, which hopes to raise $200 million from business to fund innovarive education research. The research effort is only one component of President Bush's education program, however.
The national organizations worry that if business people think the most prestigious organizations do not support America 2000--as Heritage contends--they will be reluctant to contribute to the N.A.S.D.C.
New-schools officials plan to focus their fund-raising drive primarily on large corporations.
While not backing down on her criticism, Ms. Allen said such fears were ridiculous.
"The people who are going to give money are not the types who are going to be influenced by what I do," she said. "I'm not under the delusion that I'm going to change the mind of a John Akers," the chief executive officer of International Business Machines Corporation.