Nagging Fears about Business Involvement

Appealing Images Mask Disturbing Realities

By Alex Molnar

The image is appealing — businessmen and women all across America rolling up their sleeves and pitching in to help improve public education. They offer to be partners, mentors, and helpmates to our schools and our children.

The Business Roundtable has announced a 10-year commitment to school reform.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it wants to get involved in school improvement. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander has proudly announced that the business-sponsored New American Schools Development Corp. will raise $200 million from the private sector to fund proposals for promising educational innovations.

Despite all the glowing reports, I have a number of nagging questions about corporate involvement in the schools. For example, except for glib one-liners related to the “bottom line,” no one has bothered to say clearly what exactly business people know that educators should learn.

Shall we learn about accountability from CEOs who raise their salaries to astronomical levels even as they lay off thousands of workers? Or shall we learn about public spiritedness from the Wall Street sharpies who have destroyed communities from one end of the country to the other with their financial manipulations?

Or perhaps we should learn how to manage a bureaucracy from U.S. automobile executives.

Then too, there are questions about money. In the richest country on earth, there doesn’t seem to be enough money for public education. Where did the public’s money go? According to Donald Bartlett and James Steele, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters for the Philadelphia Inquirer and authors of America: What Went Wrong?, it went to tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals.

For the past 15 years, corporate lobbying and political activities have resulted in tax subsidies to business in the form of tax incremental financing, industrial revenue bonds, and other fiscal mechanisms. These have shifted more and more of the burden for supporting public schools from business to individual residential property owners.

At the same time, business lobbyists succeeded in lowering the tax burden on wealthy individuals. The business community argued that these tax policies would produce jobs and that with those jobs would come increased tax revenues.

It hasn’t worked out that way. School district after school district is starved for cash, even as local property owners are taxed to their limits.

Now, in the face of a fiscal crisis it helped create, corporate America is lobbying for school “choice.” Business leaders tell us that you cannot “throw money” at problems. They say cash-strapped school districts don’t need money; they need the “discipline of the marketplace” to cure their chronic inefficiency.

The corporate “choice” bandwagon reminds me of nothing so much as the heady days of the early 1980s, when these same folks told us we could create a budget surplus and economic prosperity by cutting their taxes and easing their regulatory “burden.”

What “choice,” a sort of educational deregulation, is likely to deliver is the educational equivalent of our health care system. If thinking about American health care makes you sick, you might prefer to reflect on the “efficiency” that deregulation has brought to the savings and loan and airline industries.

Perhaps there are people who think that corporations have made up for lost tax dollars by being good corporate citizens and donating money to public schools. According to Robert Reich’s The Work of Nations, business spent about $156 million on public elementary and secondary schools in the late 1980s.

To put that corporate generosity in perspective, consider that $156 million is only about two-thirds of the money Wisconsin corporations alone save in one year as a result of Wisconsin’s industrial machinery and equipment tax exemption.

Of course money isn’t everything. There are issues of character and ethics. For example, the CEO of RJR Nabisco, whose “Old Joe the Camel” ads have been condemned by the Surgeon General, is the vice chair of the New American Schools Development Corporation. Old Joe has been accused of enticing children to smoke, with his cartoon character charisma.

Secretary Alexander was an investor in Whittle Communications, which has launched wide-scale television advertising in schools via its Channel One news program. Alexander doesn’t mind using his “bully pulpit” to promote corporate involvement in education, but he is curiously silent about the issue of advertising in the schools. Aren’t there ethical issues here that we should be raising with corporate America?

Educators have gotten good at parroting the corporate line about the demands of the global economy and about the need to train students to compete. Executives like to claim educators are responsible for the sorry state of American industry, because schools have produced an uneducated and unskilled work force. Meanwhile, they relocate to places like Mexico and Thailand. Are we to believe that it is because the Mexican and Thai schools are producing more highly skilled workers than American schools? Or should we be teaching our children to be happy earning $3 a day when they graduate?

Meanwhile, corporations flood educators with materials designed to turn a fast buck and promote brand loyalty or their point of view.

General Motors wants to teach your children about the environment; Miller Brewing wants children to know about the contributions of African-Americans to our culture; Pizza Hut wants to help boys and girls learn to read; and USA Today will help provide an “inside view” of newspaper publishing.

For 5,125 Campbell’s soup labels, Campbell’s will provide your school with the film strip “Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln”; for 20,000 more labels, you can get a remote control projector to show it with; and for another 6,750 labels, you can get a screen to show it on.

When you are not exhorting your children and their parents to eat more Campbell’s soup, you can teach about good nutrition, using dittos from Chef Boyardee, or about nuclear power using materials from the electric power industry, or about how to properly wrap food to preserve its freshness, with information provided by Reynolds Wrap. Or perhaps you will want to promote “total health” using handouts supplied by NutraSweet.

Finally, if your school is hungry for TV monitors and a satellite dish and you are willing to turn over your curriculum to him for 10 minutes of “current events” and two minutes of commercials every day, Chris Whittle will be happy to oblige.

The beauty of these efforts from the corporate point of view is that they are tax deductible.

Cooperation based on sound educational principles is one thing. Selling our souls and violating our public trust is another. It is time our profession took a close look at who we are and what we stand for. We owe it to ourselves and children to check the reading on our moral compass.

Alex Molnar is a Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The above article is reprinted from the May 31, 1992, issue of Leadership News, the newspaper of the American Association of School Administrators.