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Getting Down to Business at Next Week's Summit

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Next week, 44 of the nation's governors will meet with captains of American industry in a high-profile education summit outside New York City.

They'll talk about improving student performance through high standards and expanded school technology. They'll meet with President Clinton, and they'll seek to put an end to their partisan bickering.

The business and government leaders hope to come away from the two-day summit with a renewed commitment to school reform and a new campaign to build a better-skilled workforce.

But a handful of questions have been nagging at the participants before they even get there.

Observers are skeptical about those who will be sitting at the table, what the meeting stands to accomplish, and whose agenda the gathering will serve. Others have pointed out that many of the executives organizing the meeting have become better known for eliminating high-skills jobs than creating them.

Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chief executive officer of IBM and the meeting's host, presided over the layoff of 60,000 workers beginning in 1993. More recently, Robert E. Allen, the chief executive of the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., announced plans earlier this year to lay off 40,000 skilled workers and managers nationwide.

"It is certainly ironic that the company that has become the poster child for massive layoffs is talking about preparing kids for high-wage, high-skill jobs," said Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Communications Workers of America, which represents many AT&T workers.

Unlike the 1989 summit, where President Bush called the nation's governors to Charlottesville, Va., to discuss setting national education goals, next week's session is not solely a gathering of public officials. And while the governors have opened a wide door to business leaders, many educators feel shut out.

"The experience of American education is not simply meeting the demands of business," said Michael A. Resnick, the senior associate executive director of the National School Boards Association. "And there certainly has been a shroud of secrecy around this summit that is frustrating to those with a legitimate good-faith interest in what may be the most important discussion about education in the 1990's."

Rebuilding Reform Spirit

The meeting at the Palisades, N.Y., corporate conference center of the International Business Machines Corp. will mark an effort to reach agreement on implementing state and local academic standards within two years. The participants will also emphasize the importance of making schools and teachers more capable of using technology to their advantage. (See Education Week, March 13, 1996.)

The March 26-27 meeting comes after months of planning by a group of governors including Republicans Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, and John Engler of Michigan and Democrats Bob Miller of Nevada, James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, and Roy Romer of Colorado.

In addition to Mr. Gerstner and Mr. Allen, other corporate organizers of the event include John L. Clendenin of BellSouth Corp., George Fisher of Eastman Kodak Co., John E. Pepper of the Procter & Gamble Co., and Frank Shrontz of the Boeing Co.

The idea of a summit grew out of a stern speech Mr. Gerstner delivered last summer at a meeting of the National Governors' Association in Vermont. He chided governors for what he said was their lack of follow-through on education-reform issues, particularly the need to set high standards and become more creative in installing and using computers.

"You are the CEOs of the organizations that fund and oversee the country's public schools," Mr. Gerstner said. "That means you are responsible for their health. They are very sick at the moment."

Mr. Gerstner then invited the governors to visit IBM's headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., for a showcase of the vast uses of school technology.

His remarks stuck with Gov. Thompson, who earlier last summer had become the chairman of the Education Commission of the States and took the helm of the NGA the day after the IBM chief's speech.

Mr. Thompson proposed going beyond a technology exposition. He envisioned a standards and technology summit that would restore education as the top priority of government reformers. He hopes to rebuild the coalition of governors who worked during the 1980s to improve public schools.

Both the governors and the business leaders who organized the summit have kept a lid on the number of people who will be invited and have scrutinized who will occupy the three dozen extra places.

Ruffling Feathers

But the short list of invited guests has already created obstacles for the organizers. As names continued to be added last week, the guest list neared 40. (See list, this page.)

"We didn't ask people based on their association, we asked based on their expertise," said Patricia Sullivan, the director of education legislation for the NGA.

Mr. Resnick said officials at the school boards' association had made repeated requests, both by telephone and in writing, to get a representative at the table. But as of last week those efforts had gotten nowhere. Other groups also complained last week that the summit planners were excluding grassroots expertise.

"We are very disappointed that none of our 6.9 million members have been invited," said Joan Dykstra, the president of the National PTA. "A lot of these governors have talked lately about the need for a true partnership between parents and policymakers and business--the whole country is talking about it. So we are very puzzled."

Conservative activists, meanwhile, have complained that the summit may be filled with too many voices from traditional education interest groups. They also worry that pressure from business leaders and some governors may lead to an endorsement of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, President Clinton's school-improvement initiative, which conservative critics see as a threatening expansion of the federal role in education.

But conference organizers said last week that the work of the summit will be "diametrically opposed" to Goals 2000 and that its focus on standards will be at the state and local levels. "That's why we didn't invite Congress," said Kevin Keane, a spokesman for Gov. Thompson.

Education groups are not the only ones left out. Officials at the National Alliance of Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable--groups that have been prominent in education-reform issues--have invited others not included to watch the summit and discuss the issues in the chamber's Washington television studio.

"We say the more the merrier," said Milton Goldberg, the senior vice president for education at the NAB. "This is an enormous opportunity, and we're going to build on it."

A Corporate Facelift

But some observers predicted that without larger representation, and without strong follow-up efforts, the summit may be just another policy talkfest.

Some see the meeting as a public-relations coup for corporate chiefs, especially those who have been dogged by criticism for their emphasis on downsizing.

Mr. Allen of AT&T and Mr. Gerstner of IBM aren't the only corporate summit planners criticized for ordering huge layoffs while their own pay and stock holdings have soared. Mr. Shrontz called for 30,000 layoffs at Boeing in 1993; BellSouth has announced job cuts totaling 12,000 over the past two years.

All the companies have been affected by stiff competition and restructuring in their respective industries, whether computers, telecommunications, commercial aviation, or defense contracting.

Mr. Miller of the communications workers' union said many of the AT&T workers whose jobs are in jeopardy will be forced to seek work with nonunion cable-television or security-alarm companies--jobs that do not match their current skill or wage levels.

"One question they might answer," he said of the corporate executives headed to the summit, is "why are these companies becoming better known for job destruction than job opportunities?"

Summit planners, however, said they have no regrets about giving corporate leaders such a prominent position.

"People have to realize that you educate children to succeed in life," said Mr. Keane. "And the people that are hiring are businesses."

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