Public, Private Investments In Schooling

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Clearly, policies that enable citizens to develop and contribute their education and skills to the nation are also likely to enhance their personal satisfaction. Moreover, where education is concerned, the pursuit of excellence is consistent with our economic needs. The real challenge lies in developing policies that foster rigorous educational programs and able workers without sacrificing the social achievements of the last 20 years. We cannot afford to sacrifice equity for excellence. To eliminate our efforts to provide access and assistance to those who have traditionally been denied educational opportunity would not only turn back the clock, but diminish the pool of educated citizens.

For the last 20 years public policy in education has been preoccupied with social reform and has inadequately supported efforts to maximize educational initiative, independence, and superiority. Now we must turn to developing an educational system that combines the goals of equity, excellence, and human-capital development. Yet, as is often the case in this pragmatic society, practice has preceded policy--such efforts are already underway.

It is not surprising that the private sector is involved; they have a vested interest in improving the quality and relevance of education. Demographic trends, indicating a 25 percent decrease in the number of young people in the 1990's, and changing job requirements driven by the rapid development in advanced technologies, will create a need for people who must be well grounded in basic skills, computer-literate, and capable of rational problem solving. Everyone will need an appropriate, thorough education, and industry will demand it. Since women and minorities constitute well over half the school population even now, the goals of social reform and the needs of human-capital development are converging. This is a phenomenon of far-reaching consequence to the restructuring of education policy, and it provides us with an opportunity we cannot afford to ignore.

The private sector is already playing a significant role in education as a provider of education and training, and as a supporter of, and partner with, traditional educational institutions. A steady and sustained growth of private elementary and secondary schools at the same time that public education is entering a period of unprecedented decline is one sign of private initiative. And labor, business, and corporate education and training programs are now conservatively estimated to cost $30 billion a year, an amount nearly equal to the total expenditures by public institutions of higher education. Relationships between industry and education at all levels have increased, ranging from adopt-a-school programs to complex research partnerships between multinational corporations and major research universities. Much of the private sector's involvement in education has occurred outside the framework of public policy, in a period of increasing public expenditures in education, and as a response to a shortage of superior and relevant public-school programs.

There has always been a direct connection between the purposes of schooling and economic well-being. Schools have much to do with the quality of human resources, and the quality of acquired abilities has an increasing influence on the economic health of the nation. However, in order for such a link to evolve into a sustained commitment of the corporate sector to public schools, schools must demonstrate their competence in two areas.

The first is that they can improve and control the quality of their programs and their product. There is some evidence that this is beginning to happen: witness the improved standardized-test scores in New York City and Washington, D.C., changes in state teacher-licensing requirements, and attention to reform of the secondary-school curriculum.

Chester E. Finn Jr., writing in the Wall Street Journal (July 7, 1982), points out that these reforms did not originate in Washington but are the product of state and local initiative. And these developments are important for good reason. As Mr. Finn observes, they demonstrate that state and local education agencies can solve their own problems. From the perspective of the private sector, the reforms illustrate that the public schools can be "revived" and that to invest in them is worthwhile, and that such an investment does not mean becoming tangled in a web of federal bureaucracy. The more that education is dealt with on a local level, the easier it may be for the private sector to approach it.

The second and more elusive point that needs to be demonstrated in order to cement ties between business and education is that there is a clear relationship between the quality of education and the growth of productivity. This link is implicit in corporations' in-house training and education programs. And although the connection between corporate productivity and elementary and secondary schools is more difficult to demonstrate, it is not less significant.

For some, this interdependence of industry and schooling is most evident in times of crisis. We know that such a crisis exists now in the fields of science, mathematics, and computer education. Crises have come and gone before, and education and industry have managed to respond adequately, but no sustained partnership between the sectors has emerged. Now, however, a combination of factors could produce a different outcome--one that carries with it major institutional changes in both sectors. These factors are: continued, reduced public funding for education; demographic patterns that clearly define the workforce for the near future--smaller and composed of significant numbers of women and members of minority groups; new and specialized skills demanded by new technologies that will put increasing pressure on education to fill vocational and professional needs, as well as provide the means to personal satisfaction; and, most important, a growing realization that our educational system needs not a quick fix or an additional course, but fundamental changes in organization and in the standards for teaching and learning--a long-term investment in reform that penetrates public education at all levels.

These trends tell us that schools will have to do more with fewer tax dollars; that they must attend to the needs of women and minority students if we are to have an adequately staffed workforce; that even more pressure will be put on schools to educate young people for specialized work and personal satisfaction; and that to meet these challenges, schools will need to undergo more than cosmetic change.

But there is growing evidence that schools do make a difference and that schools in trouble can improve. The convergence of this evidence with the demands of demography and economic growth presents us with a historic opportunity. Now is the time to revitalize American public education, advance the causes of equity and excellence, and ensure the country's economic well-being through responsible partnerships between the public and private sectors. We all have a vested interest in the outcome.

Vol. 02, Issue 09, Page 24

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