Lessons for a Biz Community Ready to Step Up

For several years now, I've worked with my friends at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC) to provide the training and support that can help state and local business leaders become more effective partners in promoting educational improvement. I've frequently given a speech to the USCC's LEADs seminar for local and state business leaders titled "Has Business Been Bold Enough?" The answer has been straightforward: Nope.

Today my colleague Whitney Downs and I release a new USCC report that seeks to provide a roadmap for those business and civic leaders tired of genteel gestures, aimless initiatives, and sitting on their hands. In "Partnership Is a Two-Way Street: What It Takes for Business to Help Drive School Reform" we argue, "Too often, business has put its good intentions to work in the service of ineffectual systems...If business leaders are serious about school improvement, they must play a more forceful role and drive harder bargains with state officials and school district educators." To see how business can do better, Whitney and I closely examined three geographies--Austin, Nashville, and Massachusetts--where business has played an invaluable role to see what lessons might be learned.

In Austin, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has worked with the Austin area's 15 independent school districts on issues of data transparency and college enrollment, as well as providing expertise and sustained pressure for both goals. As a result, 64 percent of Austin area high school seniors submitted the Texas Common Application in 2009, up from 47 percent in 2006. FAFSA submissions are up 85 percent.

In Nashville, the district has established twelve academy high schools, each with its own specialty. There are 46 industry-themed academies at the twelve schools, and a total of 117 business-academy partnerships and six industry-based partnership councils with 22-25 business leaders meeting once a month. This academy model, with businesses as a committed partner to local schools, has led Nashville's graduation rate to improve from 69 percent to 83 percent, as well as the percent of high schools in "good standing" under NCLB to rise from 41 percent in 2007-2008 to 53 percent in 2009-2010.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education has been a crucial policy advocate, in particular issuing an influential report that helped Massachusetts policymakers embrace the Common Core standards. "The fact that the report emerged from MBAE, which is seen as the guardian of education and a mainstream business group, [made it]...more effective," said Massachusetts secretary of education Paul Reville. A number of sidebars in the paper further addressed such topics such as "generating research that has an impact," "working with legislators," and the importance of savvy leadership.

Five key lessons emerged from the cases:

Be a partner, not a pawn. Partnership is a two-way street. 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, told us, "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, told us, "[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 business to sustain its involvement and not permit the effort to be an enthusiasm that comes and goes. Alan Macdonald, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, told us, "There's a tendency of business folks to say, 'Didn't we already do that?' The fact that MBAE would bring us all together and keep us focused is very important."

Learn the issues and hire an expert point person. Effective engagement requires that business leaders 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. Mark Williams, Austin Independent School District (ISD) school board chair and former Dell executive, told us, "Sometimes chambers sit on the side and [occasionally] jump in. When it comes to school districts, you have to have a relationship. You can't weigh in [periodically]."

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. Ralph Schultz, president of the Nashville Chamber, told us, "[The Nashville Chamber's school board PAC] is a lightning rod, no question about it. But the business community is adamant about the need to be in this game. It gets nasty sometimes."

The actors in question shared a wealth of smart insights. So, if this seems interesting or useful, check out the whole thing yourself.

Frederick Hess is the Director of Education Policy Studies and a resident scholar at AEI.

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