Who Are These Guys?

Corporate Involvement in the ‘New American Schools’

By Douglas D. Noble

Within the next few months, leaders of some of the nation’s largest corporations will make the final selection of a handful of designs for “New American Schools.” This selection promises to shape the direction of educational research, development, and policy for years to come. We should know something about the decision makers.

The Bush Administration, as part of its America 2000 initiative, last July established the New American Schools Development Corporation (NASDC). A prime example of the growing role of business in public education, NASDC provides corporate sponsorship of schooling models designed to “break the mold” of public education, while adhering to the administration’s conservative school reform guidelines.

Although the promoters of NASDC have raised only $42 million of the promised $200 million in corporate funding, there has been a feeding frenzy among public and private “design teams” hoping to receive up to $20 million each over five years to develop their innovations and to market them nationwide. The NASDC board will make their selections by late May.

Who are the faceless corporate leaders making these selections, and what do they do when they are not busy pushing school reform? Although political pressure has forced the NASDC board to expand in recent months, it still consists predominantly of white male Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of major U.S. corporations. Some key figures of the original “core group” who set up NASDC — most notably David Kearns, former CEO of Xerox, John Akers of IBM and Paul O’Neill of Alcoa — are no longer on the board. They still figure prominently in federal education policy, however, through positions with the Department of Education and the President’s Educational Policy Advisory Committee.

The brief profiles below, of the original core still on the NASDC board, suggest that these are unlikely candidates to be determining the future of U.S. public education. Instead, they are better understood as adversaries of public education, with priorities that reflect an aggressive pursuit of global corporate empires at the expense of the nation’s economic health and the security of American workers.

Key Players in NASDC

Norman R. Augustine, CEO of Martin-Marietta, formerly served in six positions at the Department of Defense, including undersecretary of the Army. According to Business Month, he has “played a key role in the shaping of the modern U.S. arsenal,” and remains a “consummate insider” in U.S. defense policy. His contributions include the development of such weapon systems as the AWACS airborne defense system, the M-1 tank, and the Apache helicopter.

Martin-Marietta, a major defense contractor, has most recently developed infrared night vision systems, Titan IV missile systems for military satellite deployment, and Patriot missile assembly operations. A vocal spokesperson for free enterprise and deregulation, Augustine identifies himself in his recent book, The Defense Revolution: Strategy for the Brave New World, as simply “an arms builder.”

James K. Baker is vice chairman of NASDC, CEO of Indiana auto parts conglomerate Arvin Industries, and a founding member of Commit, Inc., a business group involved in Indiana school reform. According to Education Week, Indiana teacher organizations are currently engaged in “all out war” with Commit, whose adversarial agenda “confirms the worst fears public educators hold about their new and powerful partner.” As recent chair of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Baker has championed free trade and the globalization of U.S. firms through strong technological development. At the same time, he has lobbied aggressively against capital gains taxes and social welfare legislation, and against any attempts to “saddle business” with such mandatory obligations as parental leave and universal health insurance, according to the Chamber’s magazine Nation’s Business.

Frank Shrontz, vice chair of NASDC and CEO of Boeing, a major aircraft manufacturer and defense contractor, served in the 1970s as both assistant secretary of defense and assistant secretary of the Air Force. In the past year, Shrontz has been battling Washington State teachers to prevent “fair tax” legislation that increases Boeing’s taxes by $500 million, with much of the money targeted for the state’s beleaguered schools. Schrontz was also a key promoter of Most Favored Nation trade status for China, a coveted new market for Boeing, despite opposition from human rights organizations appalled by the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.

Kay Whitmore, CEO of Eastman Kodak, has been a key corporate spokesman for public education reform, especially in science, mathematics and technology. At the same time, he is a strenuous promoter of corporate globalization and the chief business advocate for the free trade agreement with Mexico, which is vigorously opposed by the AFL-CIO as a major threat to U.S. labor. Whitmore’s Kodak has been reeling in the past few years from huge fines for patent infringements and environmental pollution, threats of unionization, poor labor morale, and “restructuring” that has cut its labor force by 20,000 workers in the past decade.

James R. Jones, CEO of the American Stock Exchange, was an Oklahoma Congressman for 14 years and chair of the House Budget Committee. He then served as a prominent congressional lobbyist for oil, gas, and electrical industries, testifying on their behalf on such issues as deregulation, tax incentives, protective tariffs, and capital gains tax reductions. Jones heads the American Business Conference (ABC), a consortium of fiercely aggressive, high-growth, midsize U.S. companies whose

priorities are global markets and worldwide production facilities. Key advocates of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement and a loosening dependence on U.S. workers, ABC firms already derive 80% of their foreign revenues from production abroad.

Louis Gerstner, Jr., vice chair of NASDC and CEO of tobacco-food conglomerate RJR Nabisco, is known for his marketing genius. As former president of American Express, he targeted the upwardly mobile with its gold and platinum cards and exploited an elitist image with the slogan “membership has its privileges.” Gerstner was hired as CEO of RJR Nabisco by the firm whose leveraged buyout of RJR was called by Time magazine “the worst display of greed since the … robber barons.” The buyout has also been immortalized in such books as Barbarians at the Gate and True Greed.

Since taking charge, Gerstner’s top priority has been to stem the erosion of cigarette sales, which account for over 60% of the firm’s operating income. Under his leadership, the company recently has been hit with several scandals: its targeted marketing toward poor black youth and young, white, working-class females; its aggressive cigarette exports to Third World populations; and, most recently, its exploitation of young people through its “Old Joe Camel” advertising campaign. Meanwhile, the RJR Nabisco Foundation has channeled $30 million into its own Next Century Schools program, a prototype of NASDC that funds model ventures stressing extended schooling, productivity, and strict accountability.

Troubling Questions

A full portrait of corporate intervention in federal education reform would underscore the roles played by corporate figures not on the NASDC board, such as Kearns, O’Neill, and Akers. It would also address the corporate connections of Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, and profile other members of the NASDC board and their prominent roles within such organizations as the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce , and the National Alliance of Business. The snapshots above offer a representative sample of this corporate presence.

Already, however, these snapshots raise troubling questions, especially about the commitment of these globally minded corporate leaders to U.S. society, to its workers, and to its children. Their school reform efforts seem to contrast sharply with their pursuit of cheap labor worldwide and deregulation at home. They appear, in fact, to be adversaries of public education, interested in schooling primarily to ensure a disciplined work force with diminished expectations. And their range of values, including an aggressive militarism, a disregard for human rights and the environment, and even a flagrant exploitation of youth for commercial gain, does not appear to reflect any abiding commitment to our children’s future.

Other commentators on corporate involvement in school reform have raised general concerns about the ethics and agendas of American business. The profiles here focus on the priorities and values of some of the corporate leaders most directly involved in the future of public education. Are these really the people we want to be shaping our children’s schools?

Douglas Noble is an assistant professor in education at National Louis University and author of The Classroom Arsenal: Military Research, Information Technology and Public Education.