Business Moves to Center of School Policy Debate

By: - July 11, 2011 12:00 am

Office of the Governor of Colorado

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, allied with business leaders to create an education agenda.  

For more than a decade before he entered politics, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper ran restaurants in downtown Denver. And he’s always looked for ways to apply lessons from the restaurants to the job of governing. One of them, he says, is that “some of the worst financial years were the years that we came up with new ideas to create whole new lines of business.” Hickenlooper hopes that can be done now with K-12 education.
School districts in Colorado are reeling from state budget cuts of per student, their biggest hit in recent memory. That’s part of the story. The other part is that the state is moving ahead with an aggressive agenda of educational policy change. “If we can find ways to reward great teachers,” says Hickenlooper, “and take great teachers and let them take not-so-great teachers and lift them up, that dwarfs-dwarfs-the loss of per student.”
One reason for the state’s aggressiveness amid educational defunding is that the Colorado business community is buying into the Democratic governor’s agenda. Actually, corporations in Colorado have been into school improvement for quite a while now. When Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver, he and school superintendent Michael Bennet (now a U.S. senator) brought business leaders into discussions that went a step beyond the usual role they had played in supporting education. They talked about what was measurable, what should be measured, and how that information might be used to reward good teachers. The next frontier, says Hickenlooper, is assessing and improving the culture of schools the way a Fortune 500 company might seek to assess and shape its morale and workplace culture. 
Critics are quick to insist that a public entity such as a school system cannot, in fact, be run like a business. But there are office-holders and corporate leaders all over the country right now who are convinced that, at least in some ways, it can.
The discussions in Denver culminated in passage last year of a statewide “teacher effectiveness” law that ties pay to performance and makes it easier for districts to fire poorly performing teachers even after they have received tenure. The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry played a significant role in pushing it through the legislature against the protests of teachers’ unions. Loren Furman, vice president of governmental relations for the association,  says that business is generally content to leave it to education professionals to haggle with legislators and the governor over proper funding levels. What it wants to do is help shape the structure and substance of education in ways that will cultivate a skilled workforce in the years ahead.
Beyond Investment

Similar efforts are taking place in many states. At a time when cuts in K-12 funding are going straight to classrooms, as Stateline has reported , business groups are moving beyond their traditional role of broadly supporting education to take a more active role in creating school policy. While critics argue that funding cuts will make it impossible for struggling school districts to even maintain the status quo-let alone improve the their students’ test scores and college preparedness-the standard language on state chamber of commerce websites about “investing in education” is being replaced by “accountability,” “data,” “choice,” “vouchers” and “assessment.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a study last month that advises business leaders on how to engage more intensively in policy debates about education. The report argues that businesses have too often allowed themselves to be used merely as promoters of funding, and should be more aggressive and targeted in their efforts to improve educational quality. “If business leaders are serious about school improvement,” authors Frederick Hess and Whitney Downs wrote, “they must play a more forceful role and drive harder bargains…They must insist that in return for their support, educators will use new resources and tools to transform-not merely subsidize-public education.”
Hess conducts training sessions on education for state and local business leaders. Instead of investing in well-intentioned scholarship awards and mentoring programs, he argues that their time can be better spent improving data systems or lobbying in state capitols for legislation that enables experiments. Stretched budgets may motivate school districts to overhaul their organizations in ways they’ve long avoided, says Hess, and business leaders should look at the current climate as an opportunity to encourage tough decision-making. “Instead of simply going to bat for new dollars for schools,” he argues, “business is in a position to say, ‘We want to help you guys out, but we want to be confident that these dollars are going to be spent in a way that matters for students’ success.’ ” 
The Florida Chamber of Commerce has been steadily ramping up its involvement in education policy as surveys have found business leaders citing “a talented workforce” as their top priority ahead of tax and regulatory issues. This prompted the state Chamber to champion bills aimed at tying teachers’ pay to their performance in the classroom and increasing access to charter schools and online learning-all of which passed this session.
At the same time, the Florida Chamber supported budget cuts of per student-even though Florida already falls in the lower echelon of states in per-pupil funding. Ryan West, the chamber’s policy director for education and economic development, told legislators that he will argue for increased funding for education when the state can better afford it and the school system is in better shape. “There’s an awful lot of money that’s never trickling down to the kids, that’s never getting into the classrooms,” West says. “We will be an advocate for increased funding for education, but we don’t want to just feed the beast anymore.”
Likewise, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce supported a state budget that included steep cuts to education even as corporate leaders became engrossed in policy debates about the schools. “As we look at ongoing per pupil spending and the product that we get out of that spending, there’s clearly some dissatisfaction,” says Gene Barr, vice president of government and public affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber. Business engagement in the state’s educational policy has been accelerated by an interest in alternatives to the traditional public school system-specifically providing vouchers to students in low-performing schools. The legislature adjourned without passing a statewide voucher bill, but did pass another of the state Chamber’s priorities: a measure that will make it more difficult for school districts to raise property taxes. 

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.