Margaret Spellings, former secretary of education and current president of the U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation, will visit Nashville this Wednesday, Oct. 12, to speak at the Education 2020 Speaker Series.
Spellings, a leading national expert on public policy, also serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She served as U.S. Secretary of Education from 2005 to 2009. In that role, she oversaw an agency with a nearly $70 billion budget and more than 10,000 employees and contractors. As a cabinet member, she led the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, a historic national initiative to provide enhanced accountability for the education of 50 million U.S. public school students.
We sat down with Spellings to ask about what role the business community can play in improving public schools.
Q. Why involve the business community in improving public education?
A. Our education system in America is in need of transformative improvement, and business can play a valuable role in retooling our nation’s school systems. Business can provide the leverage, expertise and leadership that will help educators and public officials make tough decisions and take hard steps they may not take on their own.
Q. What can the business community do to improve schools that other organizations and institutions can't?
A. They can do two things: leverage their financial resources and use their expertise. In an effort to be good corporate citizens, business leaders often involve their companies in local schools by partnering with education officials, backing bond issues, arranging for employees to work as mentors, providing money for scholarships, and supplying goods and services to schools. While all of these efforts are admirable and can benefit many students, they don’t create the transformative change required to significantly raise student achievement. Because the business community is a sought after partner by the education community, often because they can bring financial resources to the table, they are in a position to leverage their support for real reform and help school officials tackle tough issues. This is what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce seeks to provide - guidance to business leaders on just how to engage in a substantive way that supports reform focused on student achievement and closing the gaps. In addition, business leaders possess unique skills and resources that can be brought to the table to help solve real problems faced by educators – human resource issues, budgeting, data, management, etc. These are all areas where business has expertise to contribute.
Q: What's the incentive for the business community to get involved?
A: Aside from being leaders in the community as well as parents and grandparents, business leaders are trying to be successful in their fields and to remain competitive in a global economy. In many cases, they are struggling to find the skilled workforce they need. Fifty-three percent of business leaders say they have difficulty hiring non-managerial employees with the right skills, training and education. Even though our national unemployment is more than 9 percent, there are more than 3 million jobs going unfilled in this country today. I attribute that to an education system that is failing on many levels.
Q: Why is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce working to improve public education?
A: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business federation, representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors and regions. Education is more often than not a priority issue for our state and local chambers across the country. A strong public education system means a steady stream of skilled workers for the companies in the area; it helps attract business to the area, and it’s the foundation for a strong community. As a result, the U.S. Chamber has been involved in education reform efforts for many years.
Q: What, specifically, is the U.S. Chamber doing to help?
A: The U.S. Chamber engages in a variety of ways. As a well-respected trade association in Washington, we can bring our considerable resources to bear on issues of concern for the organization. We advocate for reform at the federal level – reform focused on accountability for results, given the billions of taxpayer dollars for education that the federal government provides. We also seek to engage the business community in education reform efforts in their communities and assist those who are already engaged. Through scholarly research, resources, convenings, publications and communications efforts, we seek to ensure an educated and skilled workforce for our members so that they and our nation remain competitive in this global economy.
Q: What are other cities doing to improve public education? How does Nashville’s business community compare with peers around the country in terms of involvement?
A: While businesspeople in other communities have achieved varying levels of engagement and success in the arena of education reform, there are models for success. Just this past spring, the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce released a report titled Partnership is a Two-Way Street: What it Takes for Business to Help Drive School Reform.
The report profiles three locations where the business community has successfully engaged in school reform in their community. Along with Austin, Texas, and the state of Massachusetts, Nashville was held up as an example. Nashville’s approach to high school reform was shown to have produced results, particularly because the business community is a committed partner. The report highlighted Nashville’s 117 business-academy partnerships, as well as six industry-based partnership councils composed of 22 to 25 high-level business leaders. The result: the city’s graduation rate rose from 69 percent in 2006 to 83 percent in 2010, while the suspension rate declined more than 25 percent. The percentage of high schools in “good standing” under No Child Left Behind rose from 41 percent in the 2007–2008 school year to 53 percent in 2009–2010.