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3 Business Groups Advocate Common Reform Agenda

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Three leading national business groups have joined in an unprecedented move and announced a common agenda for improving the nation's schools.

The Business Roundtable, the National Alliance of Business, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all based in Washington, called late last week on their more than 218,000 employer-members to use high school transcripts in making hiring decisions and to consider a state's commitment to high academic standards when locating their businesses. In addition, the three groups have pledged to push employers to make philanthropic donations only to education programs that raise academic standards and increase student achievement.

The business groups also broadly committed themselves to help educators and policymakers set high academic standards for all students, assess student and school district performance against those standards, and foster accountability through methods such as rewards and sanctions.

The first-time alliance of the three groups came about because of the national education summit earlier this year in Palisades, N.Y., said Keith Poston, a spokesman for the National Alliance of Business, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the quality of the nation's workforce.

The ideas of basing hiring on transcripts and locating businesses in states with high standards for schools were among the policies endorsed by the 40 governors and 49 business leaders who attended the summit. ("The Road Not Taken," April 24, 1996.)

The chairman of the National Alliance of Business, James F. Orr III, is the chairman and chief executive officer of the Portland, Maine-based UNUM Corp. and attended the summit.

"You can draw a line from the summit to this," Mr. Poston said.

CEOs: Grades Matter

It was conversations among Mr. Orr and the two other business-group leaders that led to the joint effort. Norman R. Augustine, the vice chairman and chief executive officer of Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin, chairs the Business Roundtable education task force. That organization represents chief executive officers from the nation's largest corporations. Ed Lupberger, the chairman and president of Entergy Corp. in New Orleans, is the chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"These three CEOs talked at length about these issues and tried to come up with where we could have the most impact in advancing school reform," Mr. Poston said. The ongoing joint effort will put the three organizations' collective resources behind education reform in every state, he said.

The idea of employers basing hiring decisions on transcripts has been a controversial one, in part because of fears it could be used to discriminate against certain applicants. But Mr. Poston said the business groups are not trying to exclude anyone. "What it's all about is trying to hire people who can learn, [and] a lot of that comes from the high school experience," he said.

For an employer to care about a transcript "sends a strong message to students that academic achievement and grades matter," Mr. Poston said. "We're not going to be using high school transcripts to set some kind of immovable line that you can't work here. What we're saying is we're going to take grades and courses you took into account when making hiring decisions." ("Firms Moving To Use School Data in Hiring," June 19, 1996.)

Within six weeks, the three business groups expect to issue a guide offering advice to employers on asking job candidates for transcripts.

The groups' policy statement on philanthropy is intended to signal that "the time for feel-good education-spending programs is over," Mr. Poston said. "We want our companies to see results for the money that they spend."

While the groups' three-item agenda may seem highly focused, Mr. Poston said, "it's a lot better than some of the shotgun approaches that the business community and other groups have tried in the past."

Corporate involvement in education has grown considerably over the past decade. However, some business leaders have become disillusioned with the slow pace of change and political setbacks in some states. And those running larger companies are more likely to be aware and involved in education issues than those in smaller ones. ("Businesses' Enthusiasm for Reform Seen Flagging," June 14, 1995.)

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