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Businesses' Enthusiasm for Reform Seen Flagging

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Eleventh in an occasional series.

Corporate America, accustomed to fast results, is growing restless with the slow pace of school reform.

Business executives who have made long-term commitments to help improve the nation's schools are becoming frustrated by the size of the task and by shifting political winds.

"This is a critical moment for business involvement in education," said P. Michael Timpane, a vice president with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "There is an impatience with what [business leaders] expected would be the pace of educational improvement."

Yet, many consider businesses' support essential for reforms to "scale up" and take hold across the country. Corporate involvement in education has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade--from partnerships and mentoring programs to heavy lobbying by businesses to raise academic standards.

One recent example illustrates the frustrations of corporate leaders as they try to influence thereform process. In Connecticut, a statewide business coalition for school reform essentially disbanded last month because of a political climate hostile to systemic change.

"Until we can get a governor and legislature that cares and wants to do something about it, in my opinion, there's not a lot of point to getting a bunch of c.e.o.'s together to talk," wrote Robert D. Kennedy, a leader of the Connecticut Business for Education Coalition and the chairman of the Danbury, Conn.-based Union Carbide Corporation.

The coalition had worked for several years on a state reform package that would have raised standards for all students. But the measure went down to defeat last year.

This year, under a new Governor and legislature, education reform appears to be a low priority, Mr. Kennedy said in an interview.

"I'm very disappointed about it," he said. "But I also think I have just faced up to political reality. I don't think it is time to beat the drums and get a lot of c.e.o.'s involved until we've done the groundwork again and know where the political leadership is going to be."

A 'Confusing' Time

Observers of business involvement in education cite a number of concerns. First, some corporations and corporate foundations have scaled back their education-related activities. For example, the RJR Nabisco Foundation has reduced its commitment to an ambitious reform project called the Next Century Schools program.

Second, efforts to change state policy--such as that of the Business Roundtable, an organization of more than 200 chief executive officers from the nation's largest corporations--have succeeded in a few states but stagnated in others.

Third, business leaders who thought they had articulated a clear message about the importance of better schools to the nation's economy have been blindsided by conservative opposition to the development of national education standards, as well as by proposals to dismantle the U.S. Education Department and scale back the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

"It's a very confusing time," said Mr. Timpane of the Carnegie Foundation. "The people we thought shared this agenda with business are all of a sudden having second thoughts."

On the other hand, many corporate leaders said no matter how daunting the task, they are committed to school reform for the long haul.

"Business involvement is going up, not down," predicted Roberts T. Jones, the executive vice president of the National Alliance of Business, a Washington-based group that concentrates on education and workforce issues. "The one message the business community will continue to advance is that our economy is at risk. Business has a big responsibility to communicate that message better to the public."

"Everybody understood it was going to be a long, hard journey," agreed Joseph T. Gorman, the chairman and chief executive officer of TRW Inc. "I think there is a greater commitment today than five years ago."

"But there is also a real sense of frustration because we have not been able to move the ball as far down the field as we would have liked," added Mr. Gorman, who chairs the Business Roundtable's education task force.

Strategy Meeting

In a recent survey, Business Week magazine found that education reform remained a top priority for corporate leaders. The survey of 408 senior executives at large corporations found that improving the U.S. education system ranked second only to balancing the federal budget as the issue "most important to American business."

But school reform has failed to take hold as a major issue for smaller businesses.

Rae Nelson, the executive director of the center for workforce preparation and quality education at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said education does not register as a concern for many of the small companies that make up local chambers. "The majority of businesses are in denial," she said.

Meanwhile, leading corporate groups such as the Business Roundtable, the National Alliance of Business, and the Conference Board continue to sponsor meetings on school reform and publish progress reports.

The roundtable's effort has been among the most prominent because it represents the nation's largest corporations. The group has a nine-point agenda for systemic reform that it has promoted at the state-policy level for five years. Last month, the group issued a document that reaffirms its commitment to that agenda.

On June 19, c.e.o.'s from the Business Roundtable will meet with governors in a closed-door session to re-evaluate their strategies for bringing about change.

"We're not happy with where we are," said Mr. Gorman, who will step down as the chairman of the education task force later this year. "It is even more difficult than we thought. But we are making progress."

Paul T. Hill, a research professor at the University of Washington who has evaluated the roundtable's efforts, notes that five states have enacted reforms that include all nine elements of its plan. Many others have debated such reforms, although no state is expected to enact comprehensive legislation this year and political opposition has eroded efforts in some states.

Even so, Mr. Hill argues that businesses should continue to focus on state policy. "It would be a huge mistake to pull away from the state level," he said. "If they don't work at the state level continuously the reforms they started will lose their steam."

'Robot' Workers

Some observers point to Kentucky as the model for systemic reform. There, corporations such as Ashland Oil and United Parcel Service have maintained their commitment to making a massive reform plan work.

But in a number of states, such as California and Connecticut, systemic reform backed by business leaders has stalled.

"There are lot of things which interfere with a focus on educational change," said Jere Jacobs, the president of the Telesis Foundation and an assistant vice president of Pacific Telesis Group, the San Francisco-based communications company.

He noted that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California is planning to run for President, which has made it difficult to boost education reform on the state's agenda. The defeat of a new statewide assessment system last year dealt a further blow to businesses' efforts.

"But we cannot afford to back away," Mr. Jacobs argued. "We need to keep firmly fixed on the need for high academic standards for all students."

Mr. Kennedy of Union Carbide got involved in Connecticut's reform efforts in 1989, when the Business Roundtable asked each of its members to adopt a state.

The performance-based changes recommended by a state commission and heavily backed by the business coalition soon ran into strong opposition. Conservative groups alleged that the reforms targeted children's attitudes and behaviors, while teachers' unions questioned businesses' motives.

At one hearing, it was suggested that business was advocating dumbed-down standards that would help turn out "robot" workers.

Mr. Kennedy said the Connecticut reform plan fell victim to poor timing--coming during an election year--and to well-organized, grassroots opposition from groups that used frightening anti-reform rhetoric.

His frustration mounted this year when the new Governor, John G. Rowland, did not appear interested in reviving an education-reform proposal.

So Mr. Kennedy suggested that the business coalition stop meeting until the political climate changed.

"These are busy folks," he said of the executives who formed the group. "We'll bide our time for a while."

Despite the experience, Mr. Kennedy said corporate leaders remain interested in school reform. "I think we're going to keep at it," he said. "The business leadership I know isn't kidding around about this. They're not in it for the publicity. They are doing this because they think the state of education in this country is in shambles."

The "Scaling Up" series is underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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