Area Economy

The business of education: It’s time for new ideas

January 25, 2013
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Each January we have high hopes that the coming year will be better than the past year, even if last year wasn’t so bad.

I believe we have turned the corner on a particularly bad period. This is not to say we won’t have numerous challenges in the next 12 months. There are likely to be a lot of them at the local, state and federal levels. I do believe, however, that we in the United States, like people in most places around the world, are very short-term focused, and that causes multiple problems.

There are many situations where the next day, month or year are so critical that you have to do whatever is necessary just to get through the period. Our institutions, governments and businesses, on the other hand, should be looking further ahead to be prepared. This is not a new idea, but one we seem to forget.

Many public companies can’t seem to see beyond the next business quarter. Trying to move to a longer-term strategy is tough. It requires a plan and other supporting practices. We frequently find it necessary to make a concerted effort to get our clients and potential clients to address the issues of strategic and succession planning, even with proven positive results almost a given. The issues involve training, development, performance management and a host of other tools, which are or can be made available.

But what is the role of business when it comes to shaping the quality and readiness of its future work force? A recent news story spoke about the annual profile of states and the success of the education systems. Michigan was expected to have 25 percent fewer high school graduates in the next few years. That undoubtedly means fewer college graduates and qualified, technically trained staff.

Almost weekly someone says, “These young people can’t write and communicate.” So the question becomes: Where will the future qualified work force come from? Who should worry about it? Do we wait to see who shows up, and then compete for the few qualified people?

Many people believe the deterioration of schools is a somewhat new issue, but those of us who are more “seasoned” have seen this animal in many different forms. This most recent financial downturn has brought the issue to the forefront as people grapple with school funding and results that haven’t come with special legislation such as No Child Left Behind. We keep looking for the magic bullet. Charter school supporters say that is the answer, but it isn’t so clear when you begin to examine the specifics. Regardless of your views, it should be clear the fix will require an extended effort.

We should also recognize that those who stay in the public schools may get left further behind if funds continue to be shifted in the charter school strategy. It may also be one more step in the segmenting of our society, which may have a monumental impact. There may also be an unfounded, underlying theme involved: Public schools are unionized; therefore, they can’t be good, so we should get rid of them. As a quick aside, perhaps we should consider that unions frequently come into being when employees cannot depend on management to make sound decisions regarding operations.

However, we don’t have to look far to find examples of well-respected unionized public schools. Locally, we have a number of school districts that are thought be exceptionally good. There are more on the east side of the state, in Midland and some of the more affluent districts around Detroit. What all these successful districts have in common is money, or at least voters who are willing or can put in funds to assure they have good schools. The “willing and can” matter is most important. Because we fund schools with taxes on property, the results are not a dependable tool for making good schools.

What does all this have to do with business? Businesses have a vested interest in what comes out of the system, so they should not wait on the sidelines to see what they get. They should take an active role. That can happen in multiple ways. For example, a number of years ago Steelcase took one of the local elementary schools under its wing and focused on upgrading its resources and even provided advisory personnel. The Kent Skills Center was another special effort, but doesn’t seem to be the contributor that it could have been. A new initiative has begun by some of the area’s larger businesses, but that is not enough.

There has to be concerted effort for businesses to take an all-out public relations assault on their employees to get involved with the schools, and make policies that put muscle behind the rhetoric. Perhaps there is one other strategy to be considered: Business can become a force to change how we finance schools in Michigan. Why not drop the property tax and fund schools entirely with a sales or consumption tax? Our current sales tax allocation is a token approach. In a state that brings in tons of people from other places, a school sales tax can utilize the tourist trades for the long-term benefit of the state. And before someone says that will hurt the tourist industry, no one ever asks what the sales tax is before going to visit a place. It’s as high at 13 percent in some places. Effectively distributing schools funds is the key, but maybe there are prudent politicians who can manage this.

A well-educated populace will grow and attract business to the state and will have multiple other benefits. As for a two-tier system, the rich can still send their children to private schools, but if the public ones are well funded and supported, maybe they won’t want to. Is this a new idea that business can support?

Ardon Schambers is principal of P3HR Consulting & Services LLC in Grand Rapids.

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