Why Arguments Against Business Involvement in Education Don’t Add Up

Those who’ve called for the roll back of the “corporatization” of our public education system have some explaining to do. On one hand, advocates like Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier argue that corporate foundations and business leaders are corrupting public education, using it as a vehicle to pursue self-interested dreams of financial gain. “In time, the general public will understand the full dimensions of this corporate effort to reduce public space and to hand more of the nation’s children over to the private sector,” Ravitch said. “When the curtains are pulled away, we will learn that many idealistic and well-meaning people were cynically used by people with an ideological axe to grind, with a will to power, or with dreams of financial gain.”

On the other hand, these same figures say that the best way to improve outcomes for young people in the U.S. is to fight a culture of poverty with social policy and jobs, and they complain that the jobs are not there because of greedy companies. As Deborah Meier recently asked during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “We need more high school graduates? For what jobs? Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five, our country has no jobs for young people… [Companies] move locations there pick up a factory here and move over there. What about the children?”

See the problem? These leaders rail against business getting involved in the public space of schooling for what they say are self-interested reasons; namely, to help schools produce a talent pool ready to fill today’s jobs. But if they can’t find American workers with the skills they need, businesses have no choice but to move elsewhere – taking jobs and their tax revenues with them. And if business leaders tell educators the types of skills they are looking for in a future worker? That’s an assault on public education.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with Ravitch and Meier’s argument that you can’t measure what it means to be educated. But IMF Economist Prakash Loungani recently estimated that 25 percent of America’s unemployment is structural, meaning our country’s idle workers don’t have the skills companies are looking for to fill nearly three million jobs. Wouldn’t it seem wise, then, to bring business into discussions of what it means for a student to be, in President Obama’s words, “college and career ready”?

In Nashville, the school system has partnered with over 100 local businesses to create 46 industry-themed high school academies, each with its own unique curriculum and learning opportunities. What began as an experimental partnership with the Ford Motor Company has evolved into a nationally recognized success story. The result? The city’s graduation rate rose from 68.8% in 2006 to 82.9% in 2010, while the suspension rate declined more than 25%. And the percentage of high schools in good standing under No Child Left Behind has risen from 41% in the 2007–08 school year to 53% in 2009–10. Clearly it’s not just corporations that benefit from these partnerships.

Starr Herrman, small learning communities director for Metro Nashville Public Schools, said she believes these academies “would have died if we hadn’t had business pushing from the outside” and protecting the reforms. And while there’s no doubt the business community is a helpful ally in funding and helping sustain the academies, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said it goes deeper than that. “The academies need money, but they mostly need direct involvement,” Dean said. “You can’t have a banking academy without banks involved.”

Corporations can do more than just help schools understand the skills that their graduates will need to get good jobs. Other cities have seen business leaders step in to help educators build data systems and tackle budgetary challenges.  In Austin, TX, the Austin Chamber of Commerce worked with the fifteen local school districts to increase Metro Austin’s college enrollment by over 20,000 students, or 30 percent, from 2006 to 2010. And though the Chamber’s practical and yes, self-interested intent was to boost the number of local residents capable of filling the increasingly technical and demanding positions offered by Austin’s business community, its involvement has led to huge improvements in the way Austin ISD leverages the power of real-time data, works with low-income parents, and identifies “at-risk” students.

Public school advocates may be right. Business leaders may “have little or no understanding about teaching and learning or the conditions of children’s lives.” But they do understand supply and demand and the skills they are looking for in future employees. Opponents of business involvement in education cry out over a system they see as producing workers instead of educating children. They then hammer corporations for outsourcing American jobs. But if America’s schools aren’t producing graduates with the skills needed for today’s jobs, can we truly blame business for, in Thomas Friedman’s words, “following the brains?”

Diane Ravitch said she recently marched in the “Save Our Schools” in part because she wanted “to express my opposition to an educational system devoted to constant measurement, ranking, and rating of children, which validates the belief that some of our children are winners, while at least half are losers.” The problem is, if our public schools don’t start producing more graduates with the skills American businesses need, everyone loses.

Whitney Downs (whitney.downs@aei.org) is a researcher in Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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