A Question of Balance: Education and Economic Development

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Over the years, attention to the economic role of schools diminished. Purely pedagogical aims came to dictate school policy, with educators designing schools and programs to promote measurable academic achievement. Recently, the concept of "human capital" has gained popularity, and educators have infused education with massive doses of vocational education, along with new measures of success--employment rates and earnings. But little if any attention has been paid the relationship of the schools to long-range community goals. By and large, community planners and educators don't talk to each other.

Certainly, we don't hear much about economic development in teacher-training programs, nor is it prominently listed among the concerns of state or federal education agencies. Neither, on the other hand, do we find public schools among the parks, roads, and sewage systems that figure in the economic-development plans of most counties. The fact that the boundaries of most school districts are not congruent with those of local governmental units contributes to this lack of communication.

But now, in the midst of the most severe economic recession since the 1930's and with a rapidly diminishing federal role in education, public-school leaders are pointing to the economic benefits of schools and schooling to generate local support. If the promise of this rhetoric is to be fulfilled in fact, community educators and planners must examine the economic dimensions of schooling and weigh educational goals against community circumstances.

For years, economic concerns were the basis for federal support of vocational and industrial education. Skill training, however, is just one of the many economic functions of schools. Studies undertaken to find out just how important education is to economic development rarely, if ever, examine the entire web of connections between school and community. For example:

Schools are an undeniable part of a community's infrastructure. They can support business and economic growth by helping make a town attractive, pleasant, and safe. Parents, as purchasers of education, consider the philosophy, quality, diversity, and breadth of education available for their children and, more and more frequently, for themselves, when they choose a place to work and live. Appearance also counts; in fact, the "medium" often is "the message." The grounds, facilities, and equipment are more visible and more easily judged than the quality of teaching.

Second, the most commonly acknowledged economic dimension of schools is the development of human resources. But the form that such development takes can produce quite different results. Conventional wisdom says that vocational education produces proficient workers with proper work habits, which in turn leads to better job performance and higher productivity. It is widely believed that separate, well-equipped facilities offering highly specialized training geared to the latest occupational projections and the newest industrial innovations are most likely to produce these results.

However, proponents of a more generic approach to vocational education argue that creating separate school programs to meet industrial requirements is not appropriate to our world of rapidly changing technology or to encouraging entrepreneurs. Some point to vocational agriculture as a model of successful, less specialized training. Combining farming, business, and problem-solving skills with strong leadership training, vocational agriculture has contributed to large gains in productivity.

The intense competition for jobs pressures planners to opt for the greater specialization. In some places, local economic development takes the form of a package of incentives. One ingredient of such a package is a community's capacity and willingness to train people for particular jobs in a particular company, working with specific pieces of equipment under specific circumstances--in other words, subsidized, customized training to meet the needs of one company. (This narrow skills training has caused some educators to be suspicious of vocational education ever since John Dewey argued against separating industrial education from general education.)

As customized training has grown rapidly in popularity, so has a growing awareness among businesspeople that the basic skills engendered by a more liberal education--particularly math and science--are even more important than job-specific skills. States must rely to a large extent on the quality of their educational system and a well-educated workforce to attract hi-tech industry.

Further, the ways in which basic skills are taught affects the creativity and aspirations of youth. A system that encourages inquiry and creativity helps produce the homegrown leaders and entrepreneurs who create jobs as well as fill them.

Third, often overlooked, but deeply felt by communities, are schools as employers and consumers of local goods and services. Typically one of the largest and most stable employers in small cities, public schools also consume large quantities of food through school-lunch programs and purchase supplies, repairs, construction, and other services necessary to maintain the plant. Bulk purchasing and contracting from nonlocal sources to reduce unit prices may actually harm a local economy.

Last, there is a dimension of public schools that can influence the size and composition of the local labor force. The number of preschools and after-school programs affects the ability of homemakers to enter the labor force. Further, the value placed on postsecondary education and the availability of adult education can influence young peoples' and adults' entry into the labor force.

Once planners and educators openly acknowledge the economic aims of education and once the differences in boundaries of responsibility are reconciled, then planning can get to the heart of the issue. The problem facing both groups is to set priorities for schools and to allocate community resources to achieve an equilibrium--between the needs of the students and the needs of the local businesses, between the quality of education and the packaging of education to attract industry, between the pedagogical and the economic aims of education. It is a question of balance.

An increasingly common example of this question is how to balance the need for school revenues against the growing use of tax abatements to attract businesses. When public education depends to a large extent on local taxes for operating income, offering tax abatements at the same time there is a need to improve the quality of education may put a community's schools between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

How funds are spent raises another question of balance. If money is spent for cosmetic purposes, which may show very well to prospective business people, less money is available for teachers' salaries, which will do more to improve the quality of education and the basic skills of the local labor force. If planners allocate more to customized training programs for a particular business, there is less to spend on other educational goals that may have greater long-term payoffs.

A more subtle question is whether educators choose a style of education that encourages creativity and independence or one that inculcates traditional industrial discipline and fosters dependence. Each suggests different perceptions of employment needs and of the structure of the workplace.

And there is the issue, especially where budgets are tight, of whether school costs should be minimized or the income of the town maximized--whether to buy locally or to look for the best prices.

Obviously, seeking a balance among competing educational interests requires collaboration between city planners, school administrators, and business and labor representatives. Yet, educators are responsible to school boards; planners, to regional or city councils; businesspeople, to their stockholders; and labor, to its members. Also, each constituency must try to overcome its distrust of the goals of the others.

Certainly the federal government has not provided leadership, nor examples of collaboration, in this area. Its development agencies and education agencies rarely coordinate their activities.

Schools have a legitimate place in plans for economic development. It is imperative that city and town officials include education in their development plans and talk to local school-board members and school administrators in the early stages of planning. Similarly, school administrators must recognize their economic responsibilities to the community. For only then, when all of the contributions that schools make to creating and sustaining local employment as well as to educating and training young people are understood, will more effective, collaborative planning for economic growth be possible.

Vol. 02, Issue 13, Page 24

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