The New Player

October 01, 1991 6 min read

But while many educators and national advocacy groups have enthusiastically embraced their new allies in the fight for better schools, there are signs of discomfort. Some worry that corporate advocacy for education will be short-lived and, therefore, ineffectual; others are concerned that business’s agenda and the prescriptions for change backed by many mainstream educators are at odds.

And many, particularly the educators laboring in the trenches, question the appropriateness of business leaders telling practitioners what to do. Garrett Harbron, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, explains: “On the one hand, I think teachers and educators welcome the interest because, for a period of years, the business community pretty much ignored the schools. On the other hand, we tend to be concerned about business [leaders] who believe they have all the solutions and don’t bother to carry on a dialogue with educators or education organizations.’'

But the most stinging charge, one voiced most articulately by the prominent Harvard University political economist Robert Reich in his new book The Work of Nations, depicts American business’s much-trumpeted support for education as a smoke screen that obscures a more profound corporate withdrawal from the public sector. Reich argues that at the same time business has become an influential advocate for school reform, it has quietly worked to procure subsidies and tax breaks from state and local governments. The corporate share of local property-tax revenue--the primary funding source for public education--dropped, Reich writes, from 45 percent in 1957 to about 16 percent in 1987. “I’m sure many CEOs and executives believe what they’re saying,’' he says, “but their corporations’ activities are inconsistent with their beliefs.’'

Such concerns and criticisms aside, evidence of business’s new high profile in education policy- making mounted during the past several months:

  • Corporate leaders flanked the president when he unveiled his America 2000 package in April, and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander has acknowledged that he consulted closely with business leaders while drafting the plan.
  • Corporate America was enlisted to found the private new-schools corporation, a key provision of Bush’s plan to raise $150 million to $200 million and fund research-and- development consortia that will develop models for a “new American school.’'
  • When the president sought a highprofile deputy secretary of education, he chose David Kearns, the chairman of Xerox Corp. Since his confirmation in May, Kearns has met with a steady stream of top corporate officers--in large part, he says, to entertain their ideas for education reform.

But while the pace of business’s education policy activity has apparently picked up, signs began accumulating early in Bush’s administration that business representatives would have the president’s ear. Indeed, Roger Porter, the president’s chief adviser on domestic issues, says he has been “in close contact’’ with the Business Roundtable, the National Alliance of Business, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on all education issues since Bush took office.

On Capitol Hill, too, business leaders, who once only appeared to testify on trade and tax matters, have become star witnesses at hearings on such issues as education reform, Head Start, and Chapter 1. During the first six months of this year, for example, James Renier, the chairman and CEO of Honeywell Inc., met with congressional leaders seven times.

Business’s growing role in education policymaking is no less evident at the state level. In the 1980s, governors and legislators from across the country formed more than 300 state task forces and commissions to reform education, with business representing 31 percent of the membership, according to a study by the Committee for Economic Development.

Numerous recent interviews with business representatives, educators, and politicians reveal little doubt that corporate America’s entry into education policymaking is without precedent. Business leaders say that over the past decade, they have come to the unanimous conclusion that, as jobs have become more technical, their ability to compete--oftentimes in a global marketplace--depends on a well-educated work force.

“In the old days, business stood for deregulation and no new taxes,’' says Craig Smith, the editor of the Seattlebased Corporate Philanthropy Report. “Now, they are the most powerful, politically viable force working for social change in this country.’'

Business became increasingly involved in precollegiate education initiatives throughout the 1980s, but the vast majority of those forays were confined to small-scale partnerships and adopt-a-school projects. How the schools improve has generally been left to the educators to figure out. Now, many agree, the nation is entering a decade in which the corporate community will increasingly weigh in on possible solutions.

And, for now, education leaders are generally pushing for more business involvement in policymaking, not less. As the number of households with school-age children dwindles to fewer than 24 percent, and as competition intensifies over scarce government resources, business’s voice becomes more crucial. While educators are often viewed as self-serving when they plead for more money and services, business is seen as an advocate for the nation and its legitimate needs. “Education,’' says University of Wisconsin chancellor Donna Shalala, “needs this powerful voice.’'

But, given their new-found clout, business leaders have come in for criticism from both the left and the right for advocating what they say is a moderate agenda that does not tread heavily on the education establishment. Denis Doyle, an education analyst at the Hudson Institute, believes business has been hoodwinked by education. The schools “have been delighted to get [business’s] money, saying, ‘With my ideas and your money, we could go far,’' he says. “But in personnel practices, awards for performance, incentives, disincentives--fields where business has a real expertise--schools have refused to even listen.’'

Educators, on the other hand, are happy to see business primarily focus on advocacy, especially for increased funding, and generally see intrusions into pedagogy and school issues as inappropriate.

With various interests screaming into business’s ear, what has ensued is a battle for the hearts and minds of corporate America.

Corporations and their leaders are facing pressure from the left and from educators to push harder for more education funds and to put their own money where their mouths are by paying more taxes and increasing their programmatic contributions to education. “I know it’s a difficult pill to swallow,’' says Nicholas Penny, director of legislation at the American Association of School Administrators, “but as long as we’ve got a leadership in the White House saying, ‘Read my lips,’ somebody besides the politicians are going to have to say, ‘We need to raise more revenue.’'

And business is facing increasing pressure from conservatives to embrace parental choice, including privateschool vouchers; to insist on cutting or at least holding the line on education spending; and to stand against teachers’ unions. Some on the right, for example, are furious that business has established cordial relations with such reform-minded educators as Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “They’re seeking out the same people we’re trying to bypass,’' says Jeanne Allen, an education policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “They’re the root of the problem.’'

Some educators worry that business has been given too complex an issue to tackle and that corporate leaders could soon lose interest, depriving educators of their new, powerful ally. But many others argue that, because business’s self-interest in education improvement is real, it will not lose interest.

Sanguine or not, most educators are now convinced that systemic overhaul is needed and that it will not come about without the imperative placed on it by business.

Says Michael Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership: “Business has become the pivotal, swing element. They have influence and weight that educators never will.’'

Jonathan Weisman, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as The New Player