A G.O.P. Divided: O.B.E. Drives Wwedge in Party
As battles over outcomes-based school reforms spread in states and school districts across the country, analysts note that business leaders are pitted against conservative social activists in an intriguing political fight.
The education-policy debates in a number of states are wrapped up in ongoing struggles between moderate and conservative Republicans over control of state branches of the party.
Together, the business community and social conservatives helped elect Ronald Reagan and George Bush President. Their continued alliance is considered an essential element in Republican visions of retaking the White House and gaining ground on Capitol Hill and in state politics.
In many ways, however, the groups are now working at odds. Nowhere are the fault lines more evident than on the issue of how schools should change.
"If [conservative activists] are not taking over state parties, they are taking over school boards,'' said Keith Poston, a spokesman for the National Alliance of Business, a nonprofit coalition of 3,200 businesses that has advocated school and job-training reforms.
Mr. Poston and other business officials have been watching closely as grassroots activists, many with religious ties and strong concerns for traditional moral values, have gained public support by opposing outcomes-based reforms--reforms for which business leaders have in many instances been among the most prominent proponents.
In a recent unpublished N.A.B. survey, business leaders reported they were frustrated with the resistance to school changes.
"They don't understand what the problem is,'' Mr. Poston said. "We are talking about standards and focusing on what kids are learning. What is so odious about setting outcomes and standards for kids?''
But conservative activists warn of the perils posed by school reforms that stress broader educational outcomes over course requirements and the acquisition of specific academic knowledge.
'Business Doesn't Understand'
While business leaders are focused on the big picture of ill-prepared students and a changing economy, the activists charge, they are overlooking the effect of their proposals on local schools.
"Business really doesn't understand,'' said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform and a former policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "They hear people talk about higher-order thinking skills, and they really believe that means children achieving at higher levels.''
"Instead, you get state laws and state outcomes that say things like children will learn to reason better and cope with stress, without ever dealing with what they will learn in math, science, and history,'' Ms. Allen said.
Donna Hearne, a St. Louis activist who was appointed to several federal education panels during the Reagan and Bush administrations, predicted that the two groups could unite if business leaders were to realize the effect such reforms are having on local classrooms.
"This is not a we-versus-them issue,'' Ms. Hearne said. "It is just that this is a fast-paced society, and most people don't take the time to search out the facts.''
"The people behind these reforms see the need, but they don't see the long-term effect and the centralization of education that is occurring,'' she added.
But some business officials say the biggest difference is that they are working as friendly critics rather than outright opponents.
"We've been involved, and we have access,'' said Craig Holmes, the education-program manager for United Parcel Service in Louisville, Ky. "We raise questions, but we talk to the state commissioner and local superintendents and they don't need to be defensive.''
The intensity of the efforts undertaken both by business officials to improve the future workforce and by grassroots activists to stem the new wave of reforms has not offered time for any exchange between the groups, analysts said.
"They think they are endorsing standards,'' Ms. Allen said of business leaders. "But business is not real savvy about education policy, and they end up getting snookered.''
Looking Beneath the Hood
But business leaders respond that they are hardly newcomers to the school-reform arena, and that they understand very well how changes are being designed.
"Business does understand,'' said Christopher T. Cross, the director of the education initiative for the Business Roundtable. "These are people who have rolled up their sleeves and worked on this issue.''
Indeed, business leaders have been involved so long that many have grown tired of arguing over issues like the importance of raising teacher salaries, said Rae Nelson, the executive director of the Center for Workforce Preparation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Instead, they have turned to the results-oriented approach.
"We are to the point of looking beneath the hood of the car and have decided that what we want are results,'' Ms. Nelson observed. "And if we want results, standards are what we need.''
The Chamber of Commerce, the N.A.B., and other business groups were key allies in passing the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the Clinton Administration's education-reform plan, and companion school-to-work legislation.
As the new federal programs begin to be implemented, observers said, the clashes between reform supporters and opponents are almost certain to become more frequent and more spirited.
"This is going to be the hottest issue going in education,'' predicted Deanna Duby, the director of education policy for People for the American Way, a civil-liberties group that has worked to counter conservative education activists.
Yet while many of those activists are willing to admit that a battle is under way, they reject the idea that they are spreading it.
"The cultural war has been presented as the religious right invading the world of politics, when nothing could be more wrong,'' said Paul Hetrick, the vice president of Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based conservative group.
"The world of politics has eroded and encroached on areas that in
previous generations were the rights of parents,'' he said. "People are
protecting traditional values in education because that battle is
occurring near their doorstep.''
Vol. 13, Issue 38