Be Willing To Fund Education Reform With Tax Hikes, Business Leaders Told

By Jonathan Weisman — June 19, 1991 5 min read

Washington--Business leaders should push to raise local taxes to pay for early-childhood and other education efforts if money cannot be found in other public programs, Paul H. O’Neill, chairman of the President’s Education Policy Advisory Committee, told a group of business leaders here last week.

“We need to either reprogram [public funding] or raise our own taxes,” said Mr. O’Neill, chairman and chief executive officer of the Aluminum Company of America. “That may not be happy to you, but it’s our obligation.”

“Don’t wait for that money to be ‘round-tripped’ through Washington so someone else gets the credit for it,” he told some 340 business leaders at the National Alliance of Business’s Fifth Annual National Business/Education Forum.

The nab was one of three major business groups that converged on the capital last week to plot strategies to build on the growing role of corporate leadership in education reform.

That role--significantly bolstered by the appointment of David T. Kearns, the former chairman of the Xerox Corporation, as deputy secretary of education this spring--will grow further as President Bush’s America 2000 reform package begins to take shape, education observers agree.

The President’s package specifically calls on the private sector to underwrite a $150-million-to-$200-million research-and-development project designed to create models for a “New American School,” an effort headed by Mr. O’Neill.

Also last week, the Committee for Economic Development unveiled the final version of a report released earlier this year on the intensification of business-education relations in the 1980’s. (See Education Week, March 6, 1991.)

Sandra Kessler Hamburg, the ced’s education-studies director, said the ced had begun to form a subcommittee to draft the organization’s next education study, which will focus on education governance, management, and organization. That study, she said, is scheduled for release in early 1993.

Meanwhile, about 100 members of the Business Roundtable--made up of the chief executive officers of the nation’s 200 largest corporations--also met here last week to discuss progress on the group’s education initiative.

The roundtable promised shortly before the President’s “education summit” in September 1989 to begin a 10-year effort in which each state would be paired with at least one corporation to marshal political and financial clout for education reform. (See Education Week, Feb. 13, 1991.)

John F. Akers, chairman and ceo of International Business Machines Corporation, in a joint nab-roundtable dinner address, said that, for the first time in the roundtable’s history, every member has signed on to one initiative.

Mr. Akers, the chairman of the roundtable’s education task force, said about one-third of the states have begun moving forward on the group’s reform agenda, which includes creating an outcome-based system, strengthening assessment measures, rewarding school success and punishing failure, using site-based-management techniques, and establishing pre-kindergarten programs for at least all disadvantaged students.

Another third of the states now have strong roundtable teams in place, he said, and another third “need some work.”

Roundtable members spent much of the week meeting with their new executive director for education, Christopher T. Cross, the Education Department’s former assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, and planning a report card on the group’s education initiative, to be released in September in conjunction with the National Education Goals Panel’s first progress report.

Last week’s meetings underscored the fact that business involvement in education has moved well beyond the kind of “adopt a school” programs that marked the 1980’s to a much more significant presence.

Given that context, many business leaders at the meetings exhorted participants to make sure they are well-grounded in education issues before proposing school-improvement programs that might rub educators the wrong way.

While most of the speeches and seminars counseled patience and cooperation, it was clear from many business leaders’ comments that they recognize that educators are sometimes less than enthusiastic to embrace their advice.

Robert D. Kennedy, chairman and ceo of Union Carbide Corpoel10lration, and Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, for example, disagreed politely on the need for increased education funding and on the benefits of merit pay for teachers.

While Mr. Kennedy, who heads the roundtable’s efforts in Connecticut, said more funds for education will be necessary, he said the reform movement will risk losing public support if it is predicated on increased funding. He said educators must first produce results with what they have, and then show how more funding can further their cause.

Mr. Geiger, on the other hand, told the Connecticut executive that his ideas on merit pay would only divide teachers and render impossible the kind of cooperation necessary to make reform work.

But other comments were more strident.

Some participants in the nab forum suggested that business’s traditional role as education advocate should give way to the more visible--and potentially controversial--role of education reformer.

Martin Apple, a business consultant currently studying education reform for the National Science Teachers Association, assailed school boards for “meddling you to death” and superintendents for maintaining the status quo for fear of change.

Questions arose about teacher4union commitment to reform, school choice, and educator accountability. And the press was criticized for covering the politics of education at the expense of real educational issues.

“Business is trying to ask some of the tough questions about education in America,” observed the nab’s chairman, John D. Ong, chairman and ceo of the B.F. Goodrich Company.

Observers said much of the confidence shown by business leaders last week stems directly from the Education Department’s new management team--Mr. Kearns, the former Xerox chairman who recently assumed the post of deputy secretary, and Secretary Lamar Alexander, who has a long history of corporate cooperation.

Many speakers expressed pride in the new Administration team, especially in the deputy secretary. A speech by Mr. Kearns at the nab conference elicited a rousing response.

Mr. Kearns asked business leaders to step up their pressure on education to leverage change from the outside, but he added that the critical rhetoric--which he himself helped sharpen while still in the private sector--must be toned down and tempered with patience.

“No institution has ever changed from inside without pressure from the outside,” he said, “but there’s a fine line between pressing and forcing.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1991 edition of Education Week as Be Willing To Fund Education Reform With Tax Hikes, Business Leaders Told