U.S. Chamber of Commerce Uses Seattle To Hype Business Involvement in Schools

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week issued a stinging "case study" of the Seattle School Board, characterized by the report as churning and fractious. Yet the chamber's proposed solution to school board woes--more business involvement--stirs up the very divisiveness the report laments.

The Seattle case study, reported by The Seattle Times yesterday, was one of 13 that the chamber released on school boards around the country. This is how the chamber framed the lesson to be drawn:

These case studies show that business leaders--whether as individuals or operating through organizations such as local chambers of commerce, foundations, or public education funds--can play a critical role in supporting effective school board governance and reforms that improve student achievement.

A corresponding video on the chamber's site features Fox News journalist Juan Williams talking up the the business community's perceived role in providing "transparent, third-party information on what works and doesn't work" in the schools.

The chamber's report on Seattle doesn't explicitly say how that point is made here. It does, however, give kudos to the Alliance for Education--a business-backed group-- for holding retreats and training sessions for school board members in an effort to improve relations and professionalism.

Yet there has long been suspicion among school activists of the Alliance's involvement, consistent with a strain of American thought that warns of an insidious business agenda to use schools to churn out obedient "worker bees.'

Corporate education reformers are also knocked for purportedly wanting to run schools like a business. A quote from former federal education official Dianne Ravitch to this effect--wondering who will "stand up to the tycoons" before they "destroy public education"--lies on the homepage of one Seattle education blog.

The suspicion of business meddling in education has heated up in recent years as one tycoon--Bill Gates--has adopted a leading role in reform efforts. At Seattle School Board meetings, public speakers often talk of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a bogeyman, using its money to exert control. Former superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson took a beating for her ties to another millionaire's foundation, founded by Eli Broad.

Just yesterday, schools blogger Melissa Westbrook proclaimed a new schools group in town-- Stand for Children, one of the organizations behind the just-filed charter school initiative-- "dangerous" because of its alleged links to business interests. "The links between corporations and non-profits are becoming clearer," she wrote, adding that she found it "amusing that the Gates Foundation is now funding some of the Broad Foundation's education work."

The hostility toward business involvement often seems over the top. Yes, business has backed some reforms we could do without (constant testing, for one thing). But would we really be better off if the corporate world abandoned the public schools?

It's nevertheless foolish to believe, as the chamber suggests, that business leaders can swoop in and create harmony. They may well have a role to play, but it's one that's sure to create more controversy, not less.

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