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Denizens of Heartland Awaken to the Great STW Deception

Wednesday, September 16, 1998

Robert Holland

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

Topeka, Kansas.

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 standards."

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 other states.

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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