Plan To Pair Business With Government For Reform Is Stymied in Many States

By Jonathan Weisman — February 13, 1991 7 min read

A campaign by the chiefs of the nation’s biggest companies to play a greater role in state education policy has had modest success in the nearly year and a half since it was launched, according to business and education analysts.

The Business Roundtable--made up of the chief executive officers of the 200 largest corporations--promised shortly before the 1989 national education summit 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.

Since then, firm education alliances between state government and industry have taken hold in only about a third of the states, observers say. Another third have nascent partnerships, and the rest have nothing at all.

“This is a huge task, an enormous task,” said Frederick Edelstein, a senior fellow at the National Alliance of Business’s Center for Excellence in Education. “Whether they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, I can’t say.”

In some states, where the business community had already become involved in education and where the political will already existed, the Roundtable’s push has taken root.

Governors and ceo’s have held numerous meetings and attended education retreats, task forces have studied education needs, and corporations have pushed to mobilize public and employee interest in education improvement.

But a host of hurdles has stymied efforts elsewhere, analysts suggest. Many lame-duck governors ignored business overtures last year, and those running for re-election frequently were too focused on their campaigns to launch new initiatives. Business has also run up against political indifference, especially in rural states where the small-business community has been slow to become involved.

“Although we have some very enthusiastic ceo’s, it takes two to tango,” said Thomas Belz, a program administrator with International Business Machines Corporation. “You have to get the business community in sync with the political community and the education community, and these are very busy people.”

Given those factors, Roundtable and other business leaders say the initiative is going remarkably well.

“I would give it an A-minus,” said William Kolberg, president of the National Alliance of Business. “I think they’re about as far as one could get given all the ‘get ready’ work that had to be done.”

“Given the complexity of the issue, I think it’s appropriate that you take some time for organization and research,” observed Nancy Van Doren, director of national and community affairs for the Travelers Corporation.

The focus so far has been on acquainting corporate and political chiefs with the issues and forging intrastate and interstate alliances.

About 180 of the 200 Roundtable members have signed on to the project, according to Mr. Kolberg. Each has contributed a staff person to a working group coordinating Roundtable activities.

The Roundtable contracted with the National Alliance of Business last year to teach 2-day crash courses on education to these staff members. Last year, 121 business leaders participated in four seminars, and a similar number are expected when this year’s seminars commence next month.

The ceo’s themselves have participated in seminars as well. Roundtable officials stress that the ceo’s may not delegate all responsibility. Their personal involvement sends a clear message about how seriously business takes education.

“Whether we really have power as ceo’s in the public arena is arguable, but people think we have power,” said Robert D. Kennedy, chairman and ceo of Union Carbide Corporation.

To make sure the powers of business and politics begin working together, the Roundtable commissioned the Aspen Institute to operate retreats for governors and ceo’s. The weekend meetings provide an intense environment in which education is the only issue, said Judy Brown, the institute’s vice president for cooperative programs.

“Even if some of them have been focusing on education reform, they seldom get 24 hours of focused thought on it,” she said.

So far 27 ceo’s and governors from 11 states have attended the seminars. Five were held last year, and another five are slated for 1991.

The Roundtable-sponsored programs have begun to more systematically enlist corporate leaders in advancing state-level education agendas, observers say.

“This is a much more systematic effort than what we were seeing three or four years ago” from the business community, said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. “And that’s lucky, because what we’re trying to do is much more complex than it was then.”

The power and influence that the Roundtable can tap is obvious. Roughly one American worker in 10 is employed by a Business Roundtable member, Mr. Kennedy noted.

“If the business leadership gets behind something, we probably have a fair ability to influence the people working for us,” he said.

To bring that influence to bear, Roundtable leaders in Connecticut, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Washington State have launched employee-awareness programs on education.

The Connecticut Roundtable is publishing a brochure and video on employee involvement in education. Roundtable corporations in New Jersey employ 105,000 workers, all of whom get steady barrages of education information, said Robin Hogan, executive vice president of the Merck Company Foundation.

The Amoco Oil Company has also begun lobbying its employees to get involved with education. An “education week” was held last month for more than 10,000 employees in the Chicago area, said Gene E. Cartwright, Amoco’s manager of community and urban affairs.

But Amoco’s situation illustrates a key problem facing the Roundtable campaign. Although the corporation has over 10,000 employees in Illinois, its assigned state is Iowa, where it has only about 1,400.

No Roundtable member is headquartered in Iowa or a number of other relatively small and rural states. By contrast, nine member companies are based in New Jersey and eight in Connecticut.

“In our home state, our leadership is much stronger,” Mr. Cartwright admitted. “We’ve got more employees, we’re paying more taxes, and we’ve developed closer political relationships.”

“For states out of the industrial and demographic centers of the country, there is a certain difficulty in creating alliances with other groups like state departments of education, governors’ offices, and universities,” explained Steve Rowley, an assistant professor of education at the University of Idaho who has been working on that state’s efforts.

“There’s a great deal of fragmentation at the political level,” he added. “In the urban settings, the business and political interests are simply overwhelming. Any one of those groups can push almost unilaterally for something and get it.”

Aside from public relations, most of the Roundtable efforts so far have been confined to fact-finding. But that is what business does best, said New Jersey’s commissioner of education, John Ellis.

In New Jersey, the Roundtable, led by the McGraw-Hill/Macmillan School Publishing Company, will publish report cards on each of the state’s 611 districts this spring. It also has a member, Robert C. Winter, ceo of the Prudential Corporation, sitting on the Quality Education Commission, which was set up to study changes in the state’s controversial finance-reform law.

Mr. Ellis said that commission was a direct product of a weekend retreat Gov. James J. Florio and the Merck Company’s ceo, Roy Vagelos, attended last fall.

In Minnesota, the Education Quality Task Force, chaired by James J. Renier, ceo of Honeywell Corporation, met with parents, educators, and politicians last year and plans to issue recommendations this month.

A similar study is due out in Connecticut this spring.

The Iowa Board of Education last month adopted the recommendations of the Iowa Business and Education Roundtable for sweeping changes over the next six years that could cost at least $1.7 billion.

“Product analysis and introduction, evaluation, market-analysis techniques, and dealing with the bottom line--these are the issues that business can work on with the education establishment,” Mr. Ellis said.

Mr. Kolberg of the nab said that within a year, initiatives on such issues as finance and regulation should emerge from the Roundtable’s efforts.

But Mr. Kennedy of Union Carbide urged patience. “I’m glad we’ve given ourselves 10 years,” he said, “because it’s sure going to take that long.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Plan To Pair Business With Government For Reform Is Stymied in Many States