Educators Watch With a Wary Eye As Business Gains Policy Muscle

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Washington--When President Bush stepped into the Rose Garden this month to launch the group that he hopes will spur the radical transformation of the nation's schools, the entourage that preceded him included neither the Congressional leaders who must approve the plan nor the educators who must implement it.

Instead, the President was accompanied by some of the most well-known names of the newest constituency to enter the education-policy arena: big business.

The sight at the launching of the New American Schools Development Corporation has become almost routine in the past few years. Where once educators, lawmakers, parents' groups, and children's advocates were given the lion's share of credit for shaping education policy, business leaders are increasingly seen as a major player in the school-reform debate.

"It is clear that business has an open door to the top policy makers, including the President, in a way that professional educators would envy," said Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. "An extraordinary change has taken place."

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.

Many 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 education activists are at odds.

Specifically, some educators worry that business leaders rely too heavily on such free-market strategies as school choice and performance incentives and sanctions.

And many, particularly those educators laboring in the trenches, question the appropriateness of business leaders telling practitioners what to do.

"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," said Garrett Harbron, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. "The schools suffered from what you might call 'malign neglect."'

"On the other hand," he added, "we tend to be concerned about business interests who believe they have all the solutions."

Mr. Harbron, who has often sparred with Project Commit, an Indiana business organization that has advocated parental choice and intensive testing, said educators worry about business representatives who "don't bother to carry on a dialogue with educators or education organizations."

Ironically, business leaders have also been criticized--from both ends of the political spectrum--for embracing what Denis P. Doyle, an education analyst at the Hudson Institute, called "the most modest, easiest, and undemanding of agendas."

As a result, both the left and right are pressuring business leaders to become more aggressive in advocating a more pointed agenda.

A New Profile

Evidence of business's new high profile in education policy making has mounted during the past several months:

Corporate leaders flanked Mr. Bush 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 last spring.

Corporate America was enlisted to found the private new-schools corporation, a key provision of Mr. Bush's plan, to raise $150 million to $200 million and fund up to seven research-and-development consortia that will develop models for a "new American school." (See related story, page 24.)

When the President sought a high-profile deputy secretary of education, he chose David T. Kearns, the chairman of Xerox Corporation. Since his confirmation in May, Mr. Kearns has met with a steady stream of top corporate officers--in large part, he says, to entertain their ideas for education reform.

This month, the President nominated Donald Laidlaw, director of executive resources at International Business Machines Corporation, to become Secretary Alexander's deputy undersecretary for management.

Adding a string to the growing web connecting business and education policy making, the Business Roundtable, made up of the CEO's of 200 of the nation's largest corporations, last spring hired Christopher T. Cross, a former assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, to direct its education efforts.

But while the pace of business's education-policy activity has apparently picked up, signs began accumulating early in Mr. Bush's Administration that business representatives would have the President's ear.

The Business Roundtable was among the first groups Mr. Bush turned to for support when he called for an education summit in 1989.

And, when he formed his Education Policy Advisory Committee later that year, Mr. Bush named 8 business leaders to the panel and passed over the committee's 15 educators to tap Paul H. O'Neill, CEO of the Aluminum Company of America, to chair it.

Indeed, Roger B. Porter, Mr. Bush's chief adviser on domestic issues, says he has been "in close contact" with the roundtable, the National Alliance of Business, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on all education issues since Mr. 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 J. Renier, the chairman and CEO of Honeywell Inc., testified or met with Congressional leaders seven times.

Business's growing role in education policy making is no less evident at the state level.

In the 1980's, 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 released earlier this year by the Committee for Economic Development.

A Changing Strategy

Numerous interviews with business leaders, educators, and politicians over the past several weeks revealed little doubt that corporate America's entry into education policy making is without precedent.

Over the past decade, business leaders said 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,'' said Craig Smith, the editor of the Seattle-based Corporate Philanthropy Report. "Now, they are the most powerful, politically viable force working for social change in this country."

Added David W. Hornbeck, an education consultant and a former Maryland state superintendent: "The nice thing is that, for the first time in American history, what is good for kids and what is good for business coincide almost on a one-for-one basis. We need not thrash around, looking for motives."

Business became increasingly involved in precollegiate-education initiatives throughout the 1980's, but the vast majority of those forays were confined to small-scale partnerships and adopt-a-school projects.

In 1984, according to the ced study, 17 percent of the nation's schools had entered into some kind of ongoing partnership with business. Today, 40 percent of the schools are engaged in about 140,000 active projects.

Those efforts range from career days and the donation of materials and equipment to complex, districtwide compacts in which businesses promise to favor local public-school graduates in hiring decisions in exchange for educational improvement.

Up to this point, however, how the schools improve has generally been left to the educators to figure out.

Now, observers agree, the United States is entering a decade in which the corporate community will increasingly weigh in on possible solutions.

"Like it or not, business has been written into the policy role," said Laurie Miller McNeill, an education-policy consultant who co-authored the CED business-education study with P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Education's Crucial Voice

For the moment, education leaders are generally pushing for more business involvement in policy making, 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, they note, business's voice becomes more crucial.

In addition, they say, while educators are often seen as self-serving when they plead for more money and services, business brings much-needed credibility to policy debates. Policy Makers also tend to view business representatives as speaking for the nation and its legitimate workforce and competitiveness needs, educators say.

"Education needs this powerful voice, clearly," Donna Shalala, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, said.

Added Michael D. Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership: "Politically, this is very, very important. A smaller and smaller percentage has kids in school, and parents who do are politically disenfranchised. Business has become the pivotal, swing element."

"And these are the guys that fuel the [political-action committees] and campaigns," he added. "They have influence and weight that educators never will."

The Corporate Agenda

As of now, observers say, the largest and most influential business groups, under the tutelage of the nation's top educators, have adopted a moderate agenda that does not tread heavily on the education establishment.

Corporate chiefs have subscribed to such moderate philosophies as those of Mr. Hornbeck and Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States.

"What has struck me is that the voices of corporate America have prepared very thoughtful and, I think, balanced and enlightened statements of the nature of the problem and possible solutions," said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "They haven't gone for the quick, clear answers."

To a great extent, business's agenda is expressed in the Business Roundtable's nine essential components of education reform--guidelines that the roundtable is pressing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Alliance of Business to embrace.

The agenda emphasizes an outcome-based educational system, with performance to be assessed by a national test. In such a test, students would compile work portfolios rather than complete standardized tests.

The roundtable has also prescribed a system of rewards and sanctions for school performance, school-based decision-making, a broadening of pre-kindergarten programs and an emphasis on school readiness, updated classroom technology, and education-staff development.

The roundtable has also vaguely endorsed parental choice, but only as a minor component to multifaceted school reform.

A Timid Agenda?

But given their new-found clout, business leaders have come in for criticism from both the left and the right for advocating what is generally viewed as a moderate agenda.

Mr. Doyle of the Hudson Institute, who, in 1988, co-authored a book on education with Mr. Kearns, 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,"' Mr. Doyle said. "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.

"If they simply engage in advocacy consistently, that itself is worth the price of the ticket," Mr. Boyer commented.

With both sides screaming into business's ear, what has ensued, observers say, is a battle for the hearts and minds of corporate America.

Corporate heads and business organizations 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," said 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 pressure from the right to embrace parental choice, including private-school vouchers; to stand against or split the teachers' unions, with which it has established cordial relations; and to insist on cutting or at least holding the line on education spending.

In May, when William H. Kolberg, the president of the nab, departed from prepared testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Children, Families, Drugs, and Alcoholism to lodge his organization's opposition to the proposed "children's investment trust," he set off angry denunciations by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, who proposed the bill.

The Connecticut Democrat had suggested that a special trust be set aside to fund children's programs with the support of new taxes. The nab's opposition took Mr. Dodd aback after business's increasingly vocal and public support for increased spending for such programs.

"It's novel to have [business leaders] around Capitol Hill now, but that will quickly wear off," said a Senate aide who asked not to be named. "It's going to take a willingness to talk money before they're really taken seriously."

On the right, some conservative thinkers are furious that business has allied with such educators as Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Mr. Hornbeck. A report by John Hood, research director of the conservative John Locke Foundation, released in June, charged that "business leaders have been co-opted by the education establishment."

"They're seeking out the same people we're trying to bypass," Jeanne Allen, the education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said. "They're the root of the problem."

Breaking the Logjam

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.

"The problem is finding [business leaders] an appropriate role, not saddling them with all the problems of our institution," Mr. Shanker said.

But most others argue that, because business's self-interest in education improvement is real, it will not lose interest. They worry more, they say, that business may end up adopting a far more radical agenda than they would like.

"The underlying imperative is so strong that I don't know if the business community in the long run has any alternative but to stay in the fray," Mr. Timpane, the president of Teachers College, said. "How cheerful they are about it may be the only issue."

Breaking what some see as a logjam in the reform movement might not be bad, said Sue E. Berryman, director of the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College.

Both sides of the debate are beginning to concede that a systemic overhaul is needed, she said, and that it will not come about without the imperative placed on it by business.

"Business has been laughed at in the past for trusting the schools too much," said Mr. Smith of the Corporate Philanthropy Report. "Now, everybody's encouraged that they're finally getting in there and kicking some ass."

Vol. 10, Issue 40, Page 1

Published in Print: July 31, 1991, as Educators Watch With a Wary Eye As Business Gains Policy Muscle
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