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The K – 12 Dilemma

Fixing Public Schools It is increasingly a concern for CEOs.

Does business have a responsibility to help improve K-12 public education? Does simple self-interest demand it? If so, what should the CEO’s role be?

Those questions framed the discussion at a roundtable on education. The poor performance of public schools, especially in lower income districts, is impeding business’s ability to compete. Problems with reading, writing and math are rampant among candidates for lower- level jobs. “The public schools are in danger,” said Christopher Lofgren, CEO of Schneider National. “We talk about education and the value of it, but I don’t know that we really believe in it.”

Business is getting more involved and better organized. Lofgren’s company, for example, is a big supporter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

But the problem is huge, and the corporate world’s programs are disparate and uncoordinated. The new Business Education Network, part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, aims to analyze what programs are working best, what new programs are needed, and persuade business leaders to team up and put more wood behind fewer arrows.

Business involvement needn’t be grand to be effective. The public education system is run by school boards around the country, often packed with members who don’t know the first thing about effective management, financial analysis, innovation or risk. “You’ve got people managing $500 million or $1 billion budgets and you wouldn’t recruit most of these people to be on your own board to save your life,” said Mark Thimmig, CEO of White Hat Ventures, a technology-based education provider and sponsor of the roundtable.

To help, companies could identify up-and-comers in their ranks and ask them to sit on school boards, for example, rather than work for United Way or the Red Cross, said Thimmig.

But more fundamental change is needed. “Education suffers the same problems that General Motors did many years ago when they thought they were building great cars and the problem was the customer,” said Thimmig, a former General Motors executive and former president of AutoNation. “It wasn’t [changed] until General Motors turned around and said, ��Maybe it’s us, maybe it’s our process, maybe it’s our product, maybe that’s the problem.’”

High school dropouts are White Hat’s main customer base. The company provides classrooms with computers where kids can take courses with help from on-site teachers to meet high school requirements. More than a million kids in the U.S. drop out of high school each year. So far, White Hat has graduated 12,000 of them.

White Hat offers a flexible schedule of three hours a day of school work, which young adults can start in the morning, at noon or at night. The program is growing, but teachers’ unions and innovation-resistant school boards get in the way, he said. “Public education today is a war,” said Thimmig. “There are strong forces out there who want no part of it, who will say or do anything to discredit it.”

In the long run, said Thimmig, lobbying for more choice and competition in education may go farther than funneling more money into today’s inefficient, poorly performing public schools.

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