Business, Education Form Coalition

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A new partnership between business and education could change the way schools are funded in Arizona. And Herb Weissenfels, Payson Unified School District superintendent, is excited about the possibilities.

Called the Arizona Business & Education Coalition, the 18-month-old organization is made up of representatives from Arizona's largest and most powerful businesses and leading educators from around the state.

"It was started by folks from Motorola and Intel," Weissenfels said. "They've got money that schools don't have."

Besides money, large corporations bring something else to the table political clout.

"I get a kick out of it because we can say what we want in schools and it doesn't carry," Weissenfels said. "But when Motorola speaks and Intel speaks, (the state legislature) jumps. This new coalition is potentially very powerful politically."

Among its stated goals, the group hopes to "effectively influence public policy," to "share responsibility for the continuous improvement of student and school achievement," and to "respect, support and seek to understand each other's perspectives."

One of the plusses that has come out of the organization so far, according to Weissenfels, is a better understanding by business leaders of the problems and challenges educators face.

"We've found in talking a little bit of education finance to these business people they have no idea how we're financed," Weissenfels said. "They think we're financed just like they are you spend it as long as you've got it, and if you need more you raise your prices. We don't have a price to raise, and some of them were stunned. It's amazing how little very educated people understand about how education financing works."

But Weissenfels also realizes that the learning process is a two-way street.

"Not only do we have to educate business people to realize what education's needs are, but we've got to give them what they want," Weissenfels said.

What Arizona businesses want most is a home-state talent pool to draw on for new employees.

"One business leader said, 'You know, education is not up to par in Arizona, and when we have to go out of state to find an employee it costs us a heck of a lot more than if we can pick from our own graduates.' It only makes sense that if we can produce a high quality graduate, we're going to make (business) happy and we're going to have a better school system," Weissenfels said.

To increase communication between business and education, the coalition held its first educational event on Friday. Weissenfels, who is a member of the coalition's board of directors, chaired a breakout session at the event referred to as a boot camp.

The coalition has also flexed its muscles politically, helping to gain support for "AZ Learns," a program designed to improve Arizona's schools and individual student achievement through new community partnerships.

Among other things, "AZ Learns" allows for early intervention to assist underperforming or failing schools and the enforcement of consequences for such schools that fail to improve.

While the coalition is still young, Weissenfels is disappointed that more rural educators haven't signed on.

"All schools have been invited to join, but there hasn't been a whole lot of rural representation," he said. "I'm probably the prime representative for rural Arizona, but we did get a couple more to show up last time."

Weissenfels also notes a difference of opinion about where new dollars for education should come from. One possibility currently under consideration is to close the state's many tax loopholes.

Working out differences is all part of the process, and Weissenfels is just happy that process has begun.

"We started at zero and we've come far enough to hire an executive director," he said. "It's the first time it's ever worked in Arizona, although many of the more progressive, education-oriented states have similar groups."

And the long term prospects are exciting.

"It has, I think, great potential to make a real difference in education," he said.

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