Business and Schooling in Arlington (VA)–Part 2

That big, middle-size, and small businesses were heavily involved in the Arlington public schools, an urban district across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. in the mid-1970s, was evident by the end of my first year as superintendent. The extent of business participation in Arlington differed little from that in other districts and mirrored arrangements made years before I was appointed.[i]

The Arlington School Board annually contracted for millions of dollars worth of items and services from local banks, food suppliers, and construction companies. From buying Worcestershire sauce to paying retainers to legal firms to using pest control companies, Arlington firms did business with the School Board daily.

Business leaders brought Junior Achievement programs into high schools annually. Local firms contracted with the district’s center for adult education to train and hire non-English speaking and low-income residents. Each of our three comprehensive high schools had vocational education programs that sent hundreds of students into local firms to work a few hours a day. The district’s Career Center enrolled 10th through 12th graders in over a dozen different programs that blended classroom and workplace training in construction, hospitals, motels, television studios, auto body shops, and beauty salons. A network of business-school contacts existed throughout Arlington that produced two-way traffic between classroom and workplace. The district celebrated local and national companies’ involvement with schools each June at luncheons at which I awarded prizes to top students while praising cooperating business firms.

There were also formal relations between school board and business leaders. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, which I joined in my first year as superintendent, represented small businesses, professionals, and corporate satellites’ in the city-county. Each year the Arlington County Chamber of Commerce presented at Board budget work sessions their views on next year’s expenditures and revenues. Their recommendations seldom varied in my tenure as superintendent: cut administrators, raise class size, reduce proposed teacher salary increases, drop bilingual programs, and get rid of “frills.”

For each of the seven years that I served, the Chamber of Commerce fought increases to the school budget, damned teacher salary raises, called for lower taxes, and criticized programs for non-English speaking children as costly extravagances. The Chamber did support the Career Center. After a few years of experiencing this pattern of treatment, I resigned from the Chamber. Adversarial relations between the Chamber, myself, and the School Board, however, had little effect on the richly textured relationship of the business community to the schools, as described above.*

Finally, there was indirect business involvement through individual service of civic-minded corporate managers. Local business owners and executives often sat on board-appointed committees or served on advisory councils to neighborhood schools. Occasionally, firms would release employees to tutor students and participate in career days held in various schools.

Based on my Arlington experiences, I offer three obvious points about linkages between businesses and schools. First, a school district is inevitably part of the business community as a tax-supported institution buying products and enlisting the help of companies to provide services.

Second, efforts to improve schools necessarily involves key business leaders because the school board is dependent upon the business community for tax-based revenues, expertise, and political support. Vital interests, however, clash when school officials seek more revenues to provide basic services by urging higher tax rates that clearly affect business profits.

Third, businesses’ direct and indirect involvement in schools may cause tensions simply because they differ in fundamental values. While schools seemingly behave as business organizations in many respects and even perform business-like functions (e.g., managing people, planning, providing services, and budgeting), they still are expected to meet public obligations and are held politically accountable for student outcomes—e.g., elections–an accountability mechanism absent from businesses.

Consider other distinctions between education and business. One difference resides in the values that attract individuals into varied occupations. What brings many people into teaching is serving the young. Like medicine, nursing, and psychotherapy, and social work, teaching is a helping profession. What keeps those who continue in their career as educators, however, is a complicated meld of private interests—job satisfaction, summers off, social status–and public values, one of which is influencing the minds, character, and lives of the next generation.

Those who enter and stay in business are driven by different values–not better or worse, just different. Love of competition, rising to the top of an organization, successfully building a business and reaping its financial rewards and helping others–all enter into the ineffable mix of motives and values that distinguish those who pursue business careers from those who stay in education. Rather than draw too sharp a contrast, there are educators who start businesses or join firms in sales, marketing, and managing. So, too, do corporate employees leave investment banking, marketing, and engineering to become teachers. A  two-way traffic between business and education careers exists precisely because some people hold both kind of values and take risks to shift careers.

My experiences in Arlington with businesses, while revealing tensions and occasional conflict, have been bland compared to current back-and-forth criticism among policymakers and practitioners about “corporate reformers” and “privatization of public schools.” What is more disturbing, however,  as I look back at my experiences as a teacher, administrator, and professor, is the gradual creep of marketplace values into schooling that go far deeper than  charter schools, Teach for America, KIPP, and use of student test scores as the bottom line of schooling. I take up the spread of cash incentives and marketplace thinking in Part 3.

[i] I adapted the section on my superintendency from Larry Cuban, “Corporate Involvement in Public Schools: A Practitioner-Academic’s Perspective,” Teachers  College Record, 85(2), 1983: pp. 183-203.

*I received the following comment from the current President of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce on August 27, 2012:

“Dr. Cuban –

Can’t resist offering an update to your post about your experience with the Arlington Chamber of Commerce during your distinguished term as Superintendent of our fine school system. First of all, a few caveats: I am a product of Arlington schools (5th -12th grade) and they prepared me well for my college days. My wife has been a teacher in the Arlington school system for many years. And all three of our children went through K-12 in Arlington. None of these, however, factor into the policy making of my employer of 22 years, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.

There was scant recorded history of the Arlington Chamber when I arrived and so I considered that the Chamber had a “clean slate” to start my term. Since then:
* the Chamber has supported every one of the school bond issues
* the Chamber has made the sitting Superintendent a voting member of our Board of Directors
* the Chamber has formed a close alliance with the Career Center and its programs
* the Chamber has been the largest promoter of the PRIME summer intern program
* the Chamber offers two scholarships to Arlington students each year (paid for by Arlington’s caring business community)
* the Chamber’s Education & Workforce Development Committee continues to do fine work under the able leadership of the Schools’ STEM “guru”.
* this committee is currently leading our participation in a large-scale workforce development project

The Chamber of the ’70s has faded away. In it’s place is a community building, relevant, and respected organization that cares about all our community. I suspect that this is true of most Chambers these days. Thank you for your insight and recollections. I would welcome the opportunity to meet you sometime.

Rich Doud, President
Arlington Chamber of Commerce”


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9 responses to “Business and Schooling in Arlington (VA)–Part 2

  1. It’s a pleasure to read and reread Cuban.

  2. One of the most disturbing manifestations I’ve experienced of the “creep of marketplace values” you identify Larry, is the use of the term “customer” to describe school pupils or teachers. Rarely used by business people (because they generally know better) it’s increasingly used by policy makers or strategic figures with no commercial experience, as though somehow it automatically gives their opinion commercial credibility.

  3. Thanks for this most excellent post, Larry! Speaking as a current Arlington Public Schools teachers myself, I can tell you that the more I feel like our mission is to produce commodities instead of helping human beings to develop their full potential as rich human beings (in the cultural, aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions and not just the material), the less motivated I am to want to remain a teacher.

  4. Cal

    Interesting that the rich and varied interactions you had back then are mostly gone from the job now. You don’t have to discuss taxes with the local CoC anymore, because in most state, funding is provided in large part by the state and feds to even out property tax disparity. Very littlle voc ed anymore, because it’s so expensive. And what voc-ed does exist, at least in California, is centralized and the school is just a conduit. I wonder how often purchases are done centrally from “the best supplier” rather than the local business?

    When I look at principals today, their interactions with local businesses are almost exclusively as supplicant, asking for donations. I wonder how much interaction superintendants have with local businesses?

    Moreover, the “business” thinking you describe isn’t the smaller, local businesses that you interacted with back in the 70s, but rather huge corporate mega-businesses that came about in the 80s.

    Both schools and businesses are now much larger organizations, with very little local control. We bought a lot of efficiency with this approach, I guess, but it seems we lost a lot, too.

    • larrycuban

      Much of what you say, Cal, accords with my experiences since leaving the superintendency except that most states have not yet taken over the bulk of funding local districts. States provide about half with the rest coming from local property taxes and the feds. California, of course, is one of those exceptions where the state has been funding schools since the early 1980s.

  5. Pingback: this week’s reading list « Learning: Theory, Policy, Practice

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