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Business Leaders Say Commitment to Education Still Strong

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WASHINGTON--The nation's business leaders remain committed to education reform, despite the magnitude of the challenge and the change in Presidential administrations, participants at a forum on business and education said here last week.

"There are skeptics out there--cynics who say it's too big a job to be done,'' said Joseph T. Gorman, the chairman of TRW Inc. and the head of the education task force of the Business Roundtable.

"As task-force chairman, my goal is to find ways to step up the pace and the magnitude of the change,'' he added at a joint education session sponsored by the B.R.T., a group of more than 200 chief executive officers of the nation's largest corporations, and the National Alliance of Business, a more broad-based group of 3,500 companies.

The B.R.T. made a commitment about four years ago to President Bush to become involved in systemic education reform, focused on the state level. The N.A.B. has been involved in workforce and education issues for several years.

During his term in office, Mr. Bush emphasized the role of business in education reform by making the corporate-supported New American Schools Development Corporation a centerpiece of his reform strategy and by appointing a prominent former corporate chief executive, David T. Kearns of the Xerox Corporation, as the deputy secretary of education.

Some observers have wondered whether corporate America's commitment to reform efforts will lapse under a Democratic Administration or because of the overwhelming complexity of the task. Business leaders said last week that it would not.

"In some ways, in a systematic sense, we've learned how to do it,'' said William H. Kolberg, the president of the N.A.B. "There is a level of commitment there [by business leaders]. There is a sophisticated understanding about how long [reform] takes. I think the National Alliance of Business will be in the education-reform business for as long as it takes to be done.''

Mr. Kolberg stressed that despite the close ties between business and the Bush Administration, corporate leaders are happy with the approach taken by President Clinton's Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley.

"He clearly has a lot of experience working with the business community,'' Mr. Kolberg said. "We have a very close relationship with the [Education] Department. Riley has really opened the doors and told us he wants to work with us.''

Looking for State Leaders

In an address to the groups' joint session on May 26, Mr. Riley noted that as Governor of South Carolina in the 1980's he was able to pass a major education-reform package only by working closely with business leaders.

"We won because the business community of my state understood the rich potential of education reform,'' the Secretary said. "It is heartening to see business groups and the Education Department working together.''

He said the Administration's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' is designed "to help you build the capacity for state and local change.''

The main sessions of the B.R.T.'s meeting were not open to the news media, but Mr. Gorman of TRW said the group is working to make sure it has an "aggressive business leader in each of the 50 states.''

Corporate chief executive officers from the group's membership have been assigned to each state to help lobby for systemic reform that fits the B.R.T.'s nine-point agenda.

"The problem is even more serious than we thought,'' Mr. Gorman said about the state of education. "We are careening toward a path of mediocrity as a country and as a people.''

The N.A.B.'s forum, which drew about 250 participants from around the country, focused on the theme of community collaboration for reform. The participants discussed strategies employed by educators and business lobbyists recently in five states--Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.

The forum also heard from Bert C. Roberts Jr., the chairman of MCI Communications Corporation, who stressed that schools should help turn young people into inquisitive freethinkers.

"MCI is a company built by individuals that dared to question authority,'' Mr. Roberts said of the growing provider of long-distance telephone service. "We need young people who are taught to ask questions. Questions are the solution for the future of the American workforce.''

Mr. Roberts was sometimes blunt in the manner of a "can do'' executive when he answered questions from the participants, who included both business executives and school district officials.

"I don't have a lot of time or tolerance to work through the bureaucracies of some of the school systems,'' he said, specifically citing the District of Columbia, where MCI is based.

Discussing his role as one of the B.R.T.'s members assigned to lobby for reform in Virginia, he said the company "could threaten to move our 4,500 employees in Virginia'' as an incentive for the state to improve its education system. "Or,'' he added, "we could work in a more proactive way.''

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