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Big Business Going to Bat for NCLB

By David J. Hoff — October 16, 2006 7 min read
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Competitiveness Is Cited As Reason to Retain Law

As Congress gears up to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, business groups are laying the groundwork to have their voices heard in the process. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable—two prominent Washington-based groups representing business owners and chief executives of large corporations, respectively—announced last month that they have formed a coalition with other business groups to protect the nearly 5-year-old education law from major changes.

The U.S. Chamber, the Business Roundtable, and other business organizations are also pushing for changes in other areas of pre-K-12 education, such as improving mathematics and science education, expanding instruction in foreign languages and international issues, and offering preschool to all families that want it.

Business leaders say their interest in the No Child Left Behind law and other education matters can be summed up in one word: competitiveness.

“This is a very, very serious problem, and business takes it seriously,” Arthur F. Ryan, the chairman and chief executive officer of Prudential Financial Inc., a Newark, N.J.-based insurance and financial-services company, said at a forum on the NCLB law sponsored by the Business Roundtable in Washington last month.

Executives such as Mr. Ryan, who is chairman of the BRT’s task force on education and workforce preparation, are actively involved in part out of self-interest. They believe that by improving schools and student achievement, they’ll have better employees in the future.

“Business is probably the largest consumer of American education,” said Charles E.M. Kolb, the president for the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington-based group of business, academic, and philanthropic leaders. The priority is “having people in the workforce who are capable and have the skills you need in the workforce today,” he said.

Bigger Voice

While corporate America has long supported national education initiatives, many observers say that business leaders are now more prominent and more focused on specific details than ever before. Although business leaders supported efforts to set national education goals in the late 1980s, for example, they weren’t as involved as they are now in advocating specific policy measures.

Before Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, business leaders had not been big players in reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Great Society-era legislation that was most recently revised by the NCLB law.

That year, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce formed a coalition of 50 other business groups and individual companies to support key elements of the legislation, which President Bush ultimately signed into law in January 2002. The coalition worked hard to ensure that the law’s testing requirements focused on reading and mathematics and required annual snapshots of students’ performance. Congress adopted that approach, requiring testing in those subjects in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

The business groups also endorsed the law’s accountability measures that require districts to take action to fix schools not meeting achievement goals. Those interventions start with requiring districts to allow students whose schools don’t meet yearly achievement goals to transfer to other public schools after two consecutive years and to receive free tutoring after three consecutive years. If problems persist, the districts must intervene by taking over the schools.

Because the law’s testing and accountability requirements have faced criticism from various quarters, business leaders plan to enter the reauthorization debate and put their muscle behind keeping them in place, said one lobbyist.

“There’s a general sense that in the business community, No Child Left Behind was a very important step and to back away from it would be a troubling sign, … particularly in the face of this ramp-up [of educational achievement] in other countries,” said Sandy Kress, who as a White House policy aide helped President Bush negotiate with Congress over the details of the No Child Left Behind law. He is now a lawyer based in Austin, Texas.

The U.S. Chamber recently retained Mr. Kress to lobby on federal educational issues, particularly on the NCLB reauthorization, which is scheduled to begin next year.

While the most prominent business groups are backing the law’s testing requirements, some leading companies are looking for significant changes.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which includes technology and education companies such as Microsoft Corp., Pearson Education, and LeapFrog Schoolhouse Inc., wants assessments that can assure that students have gained more than basic academic knowledge during their school careers. The Tucson, Ariz.-based group also counts nonprofits such as the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of School Librarians among its members.

The partnership’s approach measures “higher-order thinking skills” rather than simply the “memorization of facts” that schools stress under the current systems, said Joel Packer, the director of education policy and practice for the 3.2 million-member NEA.

“We would hope that [business leaders] recognize that you can have accountability, but you want to make sure it’s fair,” he added.

Susan Traiman, the director of public policy for the Business Roundtable, said the coalition her group is building with the U.S. Chamber is focused on reading and math achievement because those are the essential skills that all future workers need to master.

While the coalition of groups working with the BRT hasn’t taken an official stance on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ proposal, Ms. Traiman doubts that the states would be able to take on such a large expansion of testing.

“The question is whether we currently have the capacity in education to assess these additional skills on a statewide basis in a valid and reliable way,” she said.

Broader Agenda

Despite the current focus on the No Child Left Behind law, the U.S. business community has a larger education agenda—one that extends from preschool to college.

In a report earlier this year, the Committee for Economic Development advocated universal preschool for 4-year-olds. Also this year, it said that American schools should dramatically increase the availability of foreign-language instruction and require high school graduates to show an understanding of other countries’ geography and cultures.

“You can see how it’s increasingly important to learn about other countries and other cultures, and learn to speak other languages,” said John Brademas, the president emeritus of New York University in New York City and a CED trustee.

Mr. Brademas, a Democratic member of Congress from Indiana from 1959 to 1981, was a leader in the effort to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. He said that business leaders played no role in pushing that measure through Congress.

The Business of Education

Three major U.S. business groups, all based in Washington, with a wide range of interests in education policy, have recently stepped up their efforts to influence the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

BUSINESS ROUNDTABLE

Members: 165 chief executives of major U.S. companies

Education agenda: Working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a coalition to improve the NCLB law. The groups support the law’s accountability and testing rules, especially annual testing to measure whether students are making progress toward reaching proficiency in reading and math. The roundtable has set a goal of doubling the number of college students graduating with majors in science, math, engineering, and technology by 2015. Improving the quality of K-12 math and science instruction is vital to meeting that goal, the group says.

U.S. CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

Members: 3,000 state and local chambers of commerce, representing 3 million businesses

Education agenda: Is working with the Business Roundtable to support the NCLB law as Congress prepares to reauthorize it. Recently started the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, which convened a meeting this month of K-12 policymakers and business leaders to discuss important issues in education policy and how business leaders can be involved. The institute also plans to issue report cards on states’ education policies.

COMMITTEE FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Members: More than 170 business executives, academics, and philanthropic leaders

Education agenda: Advocating voluntary preschool programs for all 4-year-olds. Promoting foreign-language instruction and international education as a way to help students become better prepared to enter the workforce.

SOURCE: Education Week

The Business Roundtable has set a goal of doubling the number of U.S. college graduates with degrees in mathematics, science, engineering, or technology by 2015. It is advocating changes to teacher preparation and K-12 policies to achieve that goal.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently established an institute that will focus on educational issues related to preparing students for a future in the workforce.

All of those efforts have one goal in common: to make American workers of the future economically competitive.

“We see there’s kind of an umbrella issue that all students graduate high school [ready for] college and work,” said Ms. Traiman of the BRT. “They’re all falling in under that broad objective.”

While corporate campaign contributions often open doors on Capitol Hill, one House aide said that business leaders also bring credibility to the debate over education policy because they are advocating changes, not resisting them.

“Their perspective is different than everyone else’s,” said Vic Klatt, the staff director for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “All of the education groups are first and foremost worried about their members and maintaining the status quo. The business community has no interest in the status quo.”

But Mr. Packer of the NEA said that the business community’s stance on the NCLB law is incomplete because it has been “largely silent” in the debate over funding for the program, which rose dramatically in the years after Congress passed it, but leveled off in the past two years.

“If you think these are good policies,” he said, “you should be pushing for resources for them.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as Big Business Going to Bat For NCLB

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