By Chris MeadOnce a few years ago I received a perplexing phone call. It was from Jim Dunn, who was (and is) a beloved and respected community leader in Richmond, Virginia. At that time, Jim headed the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. Jim called to suggest to me that, at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) where I work, we should give some serious thought to the idea of promoting early childhood education.I admired nobody more than Jim. But . . . early childhood education? Why shouldn’t we also champion clean water in Burma, new kinds of dental floss, and a reduction of the trash littering the space surrounding Earth? Wasn’t Jim being a little . . . off mission?I was polite but noncommittal.That was perhaps seven or eight years ago. Now, dozens of chambers are involved with early childhood education, and hundreds are working up the line in K-12 and beyond. Some chambers have got into the education field on their own, others through their peers or encouraged by foundations. (Disclosure—my group, ACCE, is now involved with some of these foundations.)Of course, chambers have almost always had an interest in vocational training and in colleges. Among the more gripping episodes in chamber history are their grabs for institutions of higher learning (where sometimes the accidental burning down of a college in one community meant the opening salvo for a bidding war for the new home of the institution). And most community colleges were birthed, and/or promoted to four-year status, with the help of the local chamber or some other group of area business people. Moreover, for at least 100 years, school systems have turned to chambers of commerce for support in getting bond issues passed for school construction or other expansion and enhancement projects.But . . . trying to tackle education reform from toddler stage to post-college? Who gave chambers of commerce this mandate?This takes me back to Roger Berkowitz’s blog about Jonathan Rauch and Demosclerosis:Rauch refers to a massive federal government, so big that it appears almost impossible to change significantly. Education, even with a heavy local component of funding in most cases, also seems to be one of those things in life that we can’t affect, except perhaps for minor changes at the PTA level. High school graduation rates, elementary school test scores, America’s drop from its former No. 1 status in the world in college attainment—these are surely out of ordinary citizens’ control. Shouldn’t we just leave all this to the experts?Only if we have given up on democracy. If something important in society is not all it should be, then surely we as citizens ought to try to do something about it. And organized action at the local level frequently can bring about change. Chambers of commerce often are involved as agents of change. For example, the first major urban school voucher program for both public and private (including sectarian) schools came about in Milwaukee with significant help over 20 years from the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. While such programs have been controversial, especially with public school teachers’ unions, the existence of vouchers made another reform, charter schools, suddenly look a lot more moderate. And such charter schools have proliferated—often, once again, with a push from local chambers of commerce.It’s not just vouchers and charter schools though. It’s seeking better statistics on school graduation rates, engaging in program for counseling and tutoring at schools, working with institutions of higher learning on curriculum, and helping schools and college with their funding plans. A number of chambers, moreover, have helped introduce a program into schools that teaches children lessons from the late Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (Apparently it significantly raises test scores and doesn’t cost much—two aspects sure to appeal to local chambers.)For businesses, the work force is the future. Companies are consumers of the product called “education.” They desperately need bright young workers. They want a Creative Class that actually went to class.For chambers of commerce, their mandate clearly includes trying to boost local prosperity. But the best way to raise per-capita income is to raise educational attainment. So it’s hardly surprising that many chambers are in the business of trying to improve and extend local education.And this takes us back to young children. Their reading level in third grade is a pretty good predictor of their future. If young children’s education is the foundation we’re building on, then finding practical ways of improving it is in everyone’s interest. The logically involved civic groups may include, as I never would have imagined when Jim Dunn called me, local chambers of commerce.
A Call for a Calling
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