ARIZONA'S EDUCATION SYSTEM IS READY FOR REFORM SCHOOL

FOR ONCE, BIG BUSINESS AND EDUCATORS ARE IN CONCERT. BUT WILL LAWMAKERS FACE THE MUSIC

ABLE's investment in reform has been motivated partly by corporate altruism, the business representatives say, and partly by corporate pragmatism.

Cathy McKee, an ABLE official and Motorola vice president, has been quoted as saying that her company spent $20 million on training and education for its employees in 1989--presumably a nationwide figure for the electronics giant, which wouldn't cooperate with this story. McKee said that one-third of that figure went to classes in remedial reading, writing and math.

Karen Mills, associate dean of the College and Adult Literacy Services department at Rio Salado Community College, says her office does a booming business with local companies that contract for remedial education for workers. Motorola, the largest corporate user of the remedial-learning program, at one point sponsored basic catch-up classes at five different plants around town, Mills says.

There's plenty of evidence that corporate concern over worker smarts is well-placed. Apply for work at Motorola's employment office on East Broadway Road and you'll be handed a sample of the test it gives hourly, unskilled workers before hiring them. A New Times reporter--by applying to work for the electronics giant--obtained a copy of the sample test. Examples of multiple-choice math problems: 142 + 320 + 1715 = ; 1135 - 638 = ; 10% of 75 = . Applicants were also asked to master a hypothetical time card and follow lines on a simulated circuit board.

Based on the level of difficulty of some of the sample questions, Big Mo and its local corporate colleagues may have a point about the failures of public education. Though Motorola wouldn't provide New Times with the pass-fail ratio of applicants--the personnel department hasn't called about our job application, either--it's clear from the sample test that "crisis" doesn't quite describe the situation.

Add to the business community's bottom-line concerns a vague, overall dread caused by seemingly declining schools--the current high dropout rate is "extraordinarily bad for society," says one ABLE member; other ABLE participants "really want to get these graffiti-writing kids off of their buildings," observes another insider--and the formation of some kind of task force became almost inevitable.

@rule:
@body:Which is what happened in 1991, after Arizona voters elected a crack businessman to fill the governor's office.

J. Fife Symington III, who opposed the ACE Initiative during the election (his opponent, Terry Goddard, endorsed the blank-check-for-schools ballot initiative), spun ABLE's momentum into the Governor's Task Force on Education Reform, whose 40-plus members--including representatives of teachers' unions, parents, school administrators, elected officials and business leaders--met for six months and produced a report. The task force also produced six pieces of education reform, which were presented to legislators in 1992 as a unified, all-or-nothing platform. All failed, not because Arizona education took a sharp performance upturn, but for these reasons, provided by Capitol observers: Following a six-piece legislative slate was "awfully confusing" for legislators, most of whom were educated right here in Arizona. Beyond that, they were already swamped by the redistricting mess. Reform proponents insisted that the bills be considered as an all-or-none package, which irked independent-thinking lawmakers.

Education interests opposed the reforms, because there wasn't any guaranteed funding.

Legislators labeled the bill linkage "extortion." The governor labeled the 1992 session's attempts at school reform "a colossal failure."

"Everything," says Marty Shultz, ABLE member and Arizona Public Service Company executive, "led to checkmate."
ABLE and others returned to the legislature in 1993, hamstrung by gubernatorial utterances that promised Arizona could reform education without spending any more money on it. Symington, who went so far as to make that promise in his 1993 State of the State speech, was also on record as saying he believes state schools waste $100 million a year.

An early omnibus bill, introduced by ABLE and Republican legislative education advocates Representative Lisa Graham of Paradise Valley and Senator Bev Hermon of Tempe, at least eliminated the scattershot approach of multiple bills. It got shouted down, though, by education interests that had not yet been enthusiastically invited into the big lawmaking tent, and that were, as usual, concerned that the legislature was going to pass paper reform without passing along any paper money.

Midway through the session, ABLE and other education advocates were faced with the prospect of striking out again.

That's when a rare coalition of business leaders and all of the education-lobby people came together. According to all involved, this alignment was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

@rule:
@body:Faced with the potential of another reformless spring, ABLE and the others began feverish meetings at ABLE's downtown headquarters. Invited were representatives of the usual education interests, as well as the usual dour business executives. After five years, ABLE, whose members are used to getting what they want from Arizona lawmakers, wanted some kind of progress on reform. The educators wanted reform, too, but knew the real costs. Funding for at-risk programs, as well as money to retrain the teachers and administrators who would implement reform, was something the educators couldn't live without.

The group's early meetings are described by participants as "reminiscent of the Paris peace talks." There were more than two sides at this bargaining table, and none of the factions wholly trusted any of the others. ABLE had an innate, bottom-line distrust of the education establishment, which the organization traditionally perceives to be composed of money-eating socialists.

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