Crisis Report from the Education Summit

Forty-four governors and forty-nine chief executives met at IBM’s palatial Palisades, New York, conference center March 26-27 to reach consensus on the need to set high academic standards for the nation’s 50 million children enrolled in government schools. Business has a right to be fed up. We are a nation of 90 million functional illiterates, 25 million of whom are high school students.

Promising that “divisive issues” would be avoided, Gerstner and cochair Governor Tommy Thompson (R-Wisconsin), opened the summit with examples of how the U.S. automotive industry rebounded from its own failing grades to recapture the pride of consumers. Governor Thompson also highlighted how raising standards of achievement results in winning Olympic gold medals. Missing in these illustrations were the fundamental components of excellence: stiff competition.

Covering the event for Crisis, I asked Governor Thompson and Mr. Gerstner the question: “How can you avoid parental choice in education as a factor in raising academic standards? If the government education system is fatally flawed, isn’t the effort to raise standards, assessments, and accountability and to pour billions of dollars into technology, well, academic?”

Governor Thompson was reasonably candid in his reply. He pointed to Wisconsin’s pioneering of parental rights and expressed hope that other states would follow its lead. Mr. Gerstner was less forthright: “This is a working session among governors and CEOs with a commitment to raising standards, and how technology can improve student/teacher performance.” He did explain that by empowering parents with information about schools, that technology would act as a catalyst for change. Neglected in that explanation was Mr. Gerstner’s bottom-line strategy with failing IBM divisions: he severed them from the corporate umbilical cord to fend for profits in the nasty world of tree markets.

At this summit the governors and businessmen agreed to give the same entrenched education bureaucrats responsible for the touchy-feely assessments and regrettable cookie-cutter reforms currently found in fifty states, the task of fixing the problems their “expertise” created.

The summit produced distinct winners and losers. Michigan Governor John Engler demonstrated a non-buzz-word comprehension of complex academic issues. Together with Governors Tom Ridge (R-Pennsylvania), kirk Fordice (R-Mississippi), and George Allen (R-Virginia), Engler was publicly willing to raise the issues of systemic failure and the protectionist interests that are the real barriers to education reform and parental rights.

Among the losers were American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, whose selective use of statistics and distorted examples attempting to justify continued union dominance over education did not play well before a mostly enlightened crowd. Governor James B. Hunt (D-North Carolina), who also served on the summit planning committee, appeared to have had his lines written by the National Education Association and Democratic National Committee. Of all members of the planning committee, Hunt was the least inspiring and most transparent. A similar observation was made of Governor Christine Whitman’s (R-New Jersey), whose appearance before C-Span cameras assuring her constituency that she was not about to demolish the cherished institution of public education guaranteed her needed support of the New jersey Teachers Association for her reelection bid.

A common thread throughout the conference was the repudiation of the federal government’s role in education. Yet the unspoken paradox was the continued flow of Goals 2000 federal money to the states, welcomed by the majority of governors. The appearance by President Clinton at the second-day session had not been a scheduled event, but rather an afterthought, and a political accommodation. At best, his address to the governors and conferees was awkward. At worst, it was political grandstanding in the face of growing public opposition to a federal takeover of education.


  • Karen Iacovelli

    Ms. Karen Iacovelli is Member of Board at The Philadelphia Trust Company. She is Director of Communications and a member of the Executive Board at Dispoz-O Inc. She produced and hosted the NY based radio and cable television program "Inside Education", and has assisted in drafting several city and state school choice programs.

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