'Take Some Risks'

Companies urge experimentation and pledge millions to promote school reform

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Two U.S. corporations have announced grants for education totaling $80 million. Added to multimillion dollar support from two other corporations, the gifts set new highs last year in corporate giving to public schools.

In late October, RJR Nabisco pledged $30 million over a five-year period to encourage schools to “take risks” and experiment with restructuring. One week later, the Coca-Cola Foundation announced it will donate $50 million to schools and colleges during the next 10 years. And earlier in the year, the General Electric Company committed $35 million and IBM promised $25 million to support reform efforts.]

The long-term commitment of such substantial resources, observers say, signals a growing awareness by the business community that it will take many years to bring about a dramatic improvement in the education system. “These grants are designed with a clear appreciation of that,” says Robert Holland, president of the Committee for Economic Development. “It's a very good sign.”

Such “extraordinary contributions” says U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos, illustrate that “addressing the need for reform in education is everybody's business.”

Corporate contributions to education, currently $2 billion annually, have more than tripled over the past decade, totaling $13.4 billion for the period, according to the Council on Aid to Education.

Although the bulk of that money has gone to colleges and universities, precollegiate education's share has increased by almost 50 percent during the same period, from 6 percent of the total to nearly 9 percent, says Paul Miller, vice president of the council. The increased corporate interest in elementary and secondary education can also be seen in grants to colleges to improve teacher training, he notes.

The Coca-Cola Foundation will award grants totaling at least $4 million to precollegiate and postsecondary programs selected on an annual basis. In addition, the foundation will commit to education all of the money generated by its endowment, which represents another $10 million a year. The grants will focus on literacy programs, minority education and faculty development, and leadership training for teachers.

“We think that is a statement of the importance of improving education,” says Mark Preisinger, a spokesman for Coca-Cola. “Without trying to sound self-serving, improving education is definitely a good investment for business.”

The Coca-Cola Company historically has allocated about one-third of its annual charitable giving for education. The new commitment, however, represents “more than half of our total giving,” Preisinger notes.

Although the company has not determined how much of its annual contribution will go to precollegiate education, several of the first grants announced will go to public schools: $2 million to the University System of Georgia to improve public elementary and secondary education in the state; $2 million for Hispanic family-literacy programs in Texas, California, and Florida; and $360,000 for a pilot program, Atlanta Peer Group Connection, which assigns seniors as mentors to freshmen in 11 Atlanta high schools.

The IBM grant program is designed to bolster teacher training in computer-based instruction and to encourage innovation in the use of educational technology.

The company says it expects to make as many as 70 grants to teacher-training institutions and another 10 to partnerships between school districts and schools of education.

Both the RJR Nabisco and General Electric grants are aimed at improving public K-12 education. Nabisco, for example, plans to provide three-year grants of up to $250,000 a year each to schools that agree to explore innovative ideas for reform. The company hopes the schools will become “laboratories for change,” says Louis Gerstner Jr., chairman and chief executive officer.

General Electric's $20 million “College Bound” program, which was launched in June, is aimed at doubling the number of students from inner-city high schools who go on to college. Over the next five years, the company will give between $750,000 and $1 million each to schools in Albuquerque, N.M.; Cincinnati; Louisville, Ky.; and Milwaukee. The schools chosen will develop their own improvement plans.

The company will expand the program each year to additional cities where General Electric has a large number of employees. The company has asked its employees to become involved with students at the schools as mentors, role models, and tutors. “We believe school reform really has to be school by school,” says Phyllis McGrath, manager of the College Bound program. “We're saying, `Take some risks with our money that perhaps you can't take with your own.”

The new corporate grant programs are “better focused” than traditional business-education partnerships, according to Esther Schaeffer, senior vice president for policy at the National Alliance of Business. Instead of responding to specific requests from schools, companies now are becoming more aggressive in their involvement, she adds. “It's a little bit of a role reversal in that business is going to the schools with an agenda and wanting to figure out what needs to be done.”

Vol. 01, Issue 04, Pages 23-24

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