Study: How Local Businesses Should Influence Education Reform

Published May 24, 2012

Local businesses can and should influence education reform, concludes a new study of how 13 business partnerships have recently done so in communities throughout the United States.

Businesses can work with local school boards to make schools more accountable, effective, and focused on student needs, says “School Board Case Studies,” published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“More of the most impactful [education] decisions are being made at the local level,” said former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, a senior adviser to the Chamber. “But businesses are usually involved more at the state and not the local level.”

Businesses naturally have a great stake in education because they depend on the nation’s system to provide thoughtful, competent workers, she said. What many observers, including businesses, miss is the central importance of local decisions and implementation to lasting education reform, said study lead author Andrew Rotherham, a founder of Bellwether Education Partners.

Rotherham and coauthor Sara Mead conducted case studies of business partnerships with schools in Atlanta; Austin; Bismarck; Dayton; Denver; Detroit; Duval County, Florida; Laramie, Wyoming; Long Beach, California; Los Angeles; Newark; Pittsburgh; and Seattle.

School Board Elections ‘Fundamentally Undemocratic’
While there are more than 13,000 school districts in the country that hire, train, and fire teachers, oversee billions of taxpayer dollars, negotiate with teachers unions, and set many school policies, most voters do not even know their school board members’ names or when to vote for them, the report says.

“Right now, school board elections are fundamentally undemocratic,” Rotherham said. “We hold them at offbeat times, they are very low turnout and special interest groups can dominate. We are proponents of opening that up. Having lots of groups engaged is a core tenet of democracy.”

Businesses and anyone interested in helping improve student learning should attend to local school boards, the report says.

“We want to engage the people who create jobs in communities in creating better schools, as is their right and responsibility,” Spellings said. “We’re trying to recognize the important role local governments play in policy issues and engage the business community in those debates.”

Businesses Should Avoid ‘Patty Cake’
Businesses have influenced U.S. education for centuries, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But for the past half-century, he said, business influence in education reform has “tended to be patty cake,” focusing on increasing school budgets and “simpleminded embraces of the fad of the moment.”

It’s more difficult for businesses to sustain involvement in education because they have many other competing interests, such as tax policies, shareholder desires, and the vagaries of the market, he said.

To avoid wasting time and money and ensure substantive impact, Hess said, businesses should bond together.

“If you dabble around the edges or come in and out, you will be crushed by the permanent interests like the union,” Hess said. “You have got to be a serious player who stays at the table.”

Once a business alliance decides to get involved, Rotherham said, it should start by talking to local educators, reform groups, parents, and so forth.

“[Businesses] can make their own independent judgments but should do that after information gathering,” he told School Reform News.

Dos and Don’ts for Businesses
The business community has certain expertise it can offer school boards, Hess said, such as operational efficiencies and doing more with less money. That’s where they should focus engagement, he said, not in sectors outside their purview like curriculum or teaching.

“More than anything else what business should not do is allow someone else to tell it that pumping money into school districts is what is needed to be a supporter of reform,” Hess said. “If business is going to contribute funds they must insist it be well spent.”

Lastly, he said, engaging in reform inevitably means politics such as school board elections and meetings.

“Businesses must face up to the fact that real education reform is partly a political exercise,” Hess said. “That’s just as true for school choice as for teacher quality and accountability.”


Learn more:
“School Board Case Studies,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce, May 2012:

Image by StephenD.