Denizens of Heartland Awaken to the Great STW Deception
Wednesday, September 16, 1998
The STW locomotive proceeds through executive orders at the federal and state
levels, and unaccountable corporate partnerships -- with state legislatures and
state/local school boards excluded from exercising their constitutional powers.
Illegal End Run
I t warmed the heart of a lifelong Saint Louie Cards' fan
just to be in the same zone at 8:18 p.m. September 8 when Mark McGwire hit his historic
62nd dinger of the season. Yes, being on Central time alone is enough to get a Redbird aficionado
scanning the low horizon for a frozen rope like the record-breaker or watching for Big Mac
moonshots while in a 747 cruising at 30,000 feet.
The display on TV of the unselfish jubilation at Busch Stadium -- with the rival Cubs
and their own worthy home- run king, Sammy Sosa, joining in -- capped a good day that
reaffirmed faith in the virtues of America's heartland. That afternoon, I had found moral
sustenance in Topeka, where the Kansas Board of Education -- having invited eight of us to
discuss, 4x4, the pros and cons of School-to-Work (STW) -- spent four full hours delving
into this rolling conversion of education to workforce training for all.
Well, okay, the board meeting wasn't as exciting as McGwire and Sosa matching homers
(now at 62 apiece, and counting), but it was heartening for allowing a free exchange of
views, in sharp contrast to the official hard-sell of STW that's occurring across the
land. For that balance, primary credit belongs to board chairman Kevin Gilmore, a bank
president from Olathe, who insisted both sides be equally represented on a panel. The
10-member elected board is itself split 5-5 between "conservatives" and
"moderates," as the media labeling goes. (Republicans dominate Kansas politics,
but they are of these two differing persuasions.) That often means gridlock, but not this
time -- not after maturely considering STW.
THE BOARD came to a stark realization late in the afternoon: STW radically redefines
education; the Board of Education is
responsible for making education policy under the state constitution; yet the state's
plan to implement STW with $16.8 million in federal seed money -- recently approved by the
National STW Office -- never went before the board for approval. The state's
"moderate" Republican governor, Bill Graves, signed off on the application, with
a Memorandum of Agreement from education commissioner Andy Tompkins to integrate the U.S.
Department of Labor's SCANS workforce competencies "into academic content
The bypassing of the board makes STW "suspect from the get-go for that reason
alone," Gilmore rightly concluded.
The next day, the board -- on a 6-4 vote -- registered its protest by formally
requesting the governor to withdraw STW money from the Department of Education. Mandy
Specht, a Democrat, provided the swing vote. Even if Graves, as expected, refuses the
request, the board has fired an opening salvo in what could become a national battle to
reclaim popular control over education policy. Lawsuits already are being talked up in
Whatever the merits of School-to-Work, it is as elitist a movement as any I've seen in
35 years of following education. Kansas is the rule, not the exception.
AS OHIO Board of Education member Diana Fessler noted, STW tax money flows not through
local school boards accountable to the people but to business/industry partnerships set up
by governors. These partnerships, in turn, must meet 23 federal requirements,
"including a description of how vocational training and academic instruction will be
integrated, a process for awarding skill certificates, and a plan to sustain the system
when federal funds have been exhausted."
Adding to the byzantine nature of the system, each state is carved into labor market
regions (Kansas has seven) and business-led workforce development boards are supposed to
tell schools what jobs they should prepare children to fill-- as though economic
soothsayers really know what jobs will exist 10 years from now. When STW is fully
implemented, all pupils (including the college-bound) will have to declare a career major
no later than the end of the 10th grade. Chamber of Commerce and corporate types, such as
those who spoke for STW before the Kansas board, seem to be laboring under the delusion
they are supporting some benign adopt-a-school program. With regard to the
prescriptiveness of the national system, they appear clueless.
Hillsdale College economics professor Gary Wolfram, a member of the Michigan Board of
Education, made the salient point that STW opens the school curriculum to special-interest
influence, especially by business. Each employer will want to get the specific training
used in its own industry into the schools, and will want to have a hand in what career
majors pupils are steered into. Indeed, he noted, "it is only rational that each
employer should seek to have students directed into [its] industry in order to increase
the supply of skilled labor in that industry. This reduces job training costs and reduces
the wage costs for the employer."
DO PARENTS really want their children's futures to be determined by business lobbyists?
Maybe an even better question is: Do most business executives really want the pervasive
vocationalization that the feds are forcing on the states?
Maybe not. Kansas state senator Laurie Bleeker wondered about that, so she convinced
the Association of American Educators' foundation to sponsor a nationwide survey of
business leaders by the Lunz Research Company. Asked what should be the primary role of
K-12 schooling, 65 percent of business folks responded, "Provide a broad, academic
education." Only 30 percent said, "Train with specific skills for future
work." Seemingly, most companies still appreciate the value of liberal arts
graduates, realizing that they can be trained and retrained on the job with relative ease.
Nevertheless, the STW locomotive proceeds through executive orders at the federal and
state levels, and unaccountable corporate partnerships -- with state legislatures and
state/local school boards excluded from exercising their constitutional powers. It's too
bad so many issues in our country wind up in court, but there may be no other way to
settle this one on the side of representative government.
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