"Business must play a more forceful role in school reform and drive harder bargains with state officials and school district educators," write American Enterprise Institute (AEI) director of education policy studies Frederick M. Hess and researcher Whitney Downs. In a new US Chamber of Commerce report entitled Partnership Is a Two-Way Street: What It Takes for Business to Help Drive School Reform, Hess and Downs explain that, in return for their support, businesses must insist that educators use new resources and tools to transform--not merely subsidize--public education in the United States.
Good intentions don't always work. The authors point out that while volunteer tutoring and college scholarships are beneficial, this kind of involvement by business in public education will not power the changes needed to significantly transform the education system and increase student achievement.
"American K-12 schooling is in need of major improvements, and business can play a valuable role in retooling school systems for the new century," says coauthor Hess. "Business can provide the leverage, expertise, and leadership that will help educators and public officials make tough decisions and take hard steps they might not take on their own."
To illustrate their message, Hess and Downs examine three business communities leading in the field of education reform: Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and the state of Massachusetts. In each case, the business community has embraced a distinctive strategy to tackle local education challenges. Despite variations in approach, five common key elements of bold business leadership are evident:
- Be a partner, not a pawn. Working with school districts or policymakers doesn't mean carrying their water; it means settling on shared objectives and pursuing them jointly. Drew Scheberle, senior vice president of education and talent development for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said, "We had to have the moment when [Austin Independent School District] knew we were willing to walk away. We gave them a list of non-negotiables [and] said, 'If you want [our support], then you have to do these things. If you don't, we're out.'"
- Leverage the unique assets business brings. When business leaders work with state and school district officials on K-12 schooling, they need to keep in mind that they are negotiating not as claimants but as valued partners. Jay Steele, associate superintendent of high schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools, said, "[Businesses] are organizing their lobbyists around things we have asked. They can get a lot of things done as business people that I can't."
- Get in for the long haul. Businesses often have other priorities besides K-12 education, so it is vital to structure a role that allows them to sustain their involvement over time. Beth Gamse, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education board member and principal associate at Abt Associates Inc., said, "It's about having a long-term view built into the fabric of the organization. It's recognizing that…you can't get there without building a foundation."
- Learn the issues and hire an expert point person. For effective engagement, local business leaders need to invest time and energy to become acquainted with the issues and the local stakeholders. They should hire an expert who knows the ins and outs of education policy and can leverage the strengths of business to drive improvement.
- Don't shy away from policy and politics. Business leaders have a natural inclination to stay out of heated education debates. But school systems are public agencies spending public dollars to serve the public's children. Serious reform requires changing policy, and that means political debate. "[Our school board political action committee] is a lightning rod, no question about it," said Ralph Schulz, president of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. "But the business community is adamant about the need to be in this game. It gets nasty sometimes."
"The business community can no longer afford to allow American education to continue as is," says Cheryl Oldham, vice president of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the US Chamber of Commerce. "Business engagement in education reform needs to be more robust than just donating money and sponsoring scholarships. These three regions--Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and the state of Massachusetts--have demonstrated the kind of bold leadership necessary to tackle local challenges and bring about real change."
Please join us on June 8 at 1:00 p.m. ET when Hess and Downs discuss what they learned from the leaders of education reform efforts in Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and Massachusetts. You can register for the webinar here.
Frederick M. Hess and Whitney Downs are available for interviews and can be reached through Jenna Schuette at email@example.com or 202.862.5809. For additional media inquiries, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202.862.5806.
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