Business Leaders Urged To Step Up Support for Schools

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Cambridge, Mass.

Corporate America's commitment to education reform is beginning to show signs of strain just when it is needed more than ever.

That is one assessment that emerged from a March 19 symposium on business and education at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government here.

"I see a lot of corporate support turning inward," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education. "For many [companies], there is less and less support of systemic change."

Mr. Cross is a veteran of education policy and corporate-involvement circles. Before joining the Washington-based CBE, he was the director of the education initiative of the Business Roundtable, a group of chief executive officers of the nation's largest corporations. He is also a former president of the Maryland state school board and was assistant secretary for educational research in the U.S. Department of Education under President Bush.

He said a number of recent business trends have had an adverse impact on corporate charitable support in general and on support for education reform.

For example, the latest wave of corporate mergers has usually resulted in less support for the causes of the merged companies, Mr. Cross said.

"In a number of communities, you see a wholesale abandonment of corporate headquarters," he told the 175 conference participants.

Susan Traiman, the current director of the Business Roundtable's education effort, said the Washington-based BRT remains committed to its long-running drive to have business leaders lobby at the state level for higher education standards.

"The role for business is lobbying," she said. "It works. Business leaders have a lot of credibility at the state level."

Businesses must also work from a national perspective, said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve Inc., the nonprofit Washington organization created to promote higher academic standards in the wake of the 1996 national education summit.

"Only the business community in our political environment can really press the case for a national strategy" on improving the schools, Mr. Schwartz said.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander offered another perspective on corporate involvement in school reform.

"Much of what is done now by business [to help schools] doesn't accomplish anything," said Mr. Alexander, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 and a likely contender again in 2000. "Business goes to conferences."

Corporate efforts to promote reform have been "too timid," Mr. Alexander added.

He said business leaders should stop "checking their entrepreneurial skills at the door" of schools and help promote charter schools and other reforms.

Mr. Alexander touted such efforts as the City on a Hill charter school in Boston and the Edison Project's private management of charter schools and traditional public schools.

But he also professed a commitment to the public school system.

"We have to understand why we have public schools," he said. "It's because we want to be one country.

"I think there will be a revival of support for the concept of public schools, but that doesn't necessarily mean government schools."

As for private-sector involvement in the business of education, Mr. Alexander said companies that explore "niche" markets may profit the most over the next five to 10 years. Such niches include day care, the education of at-risk children, and special education, he said.

Mr. Alexander is the co-founder and vice chairman of Nashville-based CorporateFamily Solutions Inc., a growing provider of corporate-sponsored child care. The company operates about 100 workplace child-care centers.

"We now operate kindergartens, too, and we are exploring the idea of schools," Mr. Alexander said.

The Harvard symposium was intended in part to be a tribute to David T. Kearns, the former chairman of Xerox Corp. who became deputy secretary of education under Mr. Alexander during the Bush administration.

In 1988, Mr. Kearns argued in a book co-written by Denis P. Doyle that business and political leaders must support school reform efforts to ensure the nation's future economic competitiveness. The book, Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan to Make Our Schools Competitive, helped launch the current wave of business involvement in education.

Roger B. Porter, who sometimes worked on education policy as a White House aide under Presidents Reagan and Bush, said he reread the book in preparation for the tribute to Mr. Kearns.

"The book really holds up," said Mr. Porter, a professor at the Kennedy School and the director of its center for business and government.

Mr. Kearns is now the chairman of New American Schools, the break-the-mold school reform effort launched during the Bush administration as the New American Schools Development Corp.

"I'm having a damn good time," he said.


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