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Businesses are letting schools down


THIS week the doors of schools all over Maryland open again for classes. For teachers, students and others directly involved in this annual return, there is the usual mix of anticipation and anxiety. But for just about everyone else, this annual rite of autumn will probably go unnoticed. And there's the problem.

Despite the fact that American education is a hot conversational topic, productive activity by those not directly associated with schools has fallen far short of the need. Direct financial assistance such as Eugene Lang's "I Have a Dream" foundation, which guarantees successful elementary-secondary students scholarships to college, and business coalitions' financial support represent only a small fraction of what could be done by America's most influential sector -- the business community.

Even if only the narrow stereotype of self-interest applied to American business' rationale for action, there would be plenty of reasons for businesses to become involved with schools. For starters, businesses already spend more on training -- much of it for remedial reading and math -- than is currently spent on elementary and secondary education nationally.

Perhaps a healthy investment up front might go a long way toward reducing the astronomical expenditures these companies must make eventually just to have a literate work force.

Besides, educated citizens make and, presumably, spend more money on the kinds of products and services that businesses offer. Better educated workers will also help American businesses compete in an increasingly international marketplace. And, finally, the better educated a community is, the less businesses will have to spend on security.

If there are many reasons for businesses to support education, there are even more ways in which they could provide that support. Direct contributions to schools and students is certainly the most obvious form. Every year there are literally thousands of talented students who don't take advantage of their opportunities for further schooling simply because they don't have the money. Every major business in Maryland should have a scholarship fund. Some might choose to finance schools through a competitive grant process or by "adopting" a school. And still other companies could donate materials or equipment.

But as critical as financial support is, American school children would benefit even more from the technical support and positive role models that the business community can provide. Companies could provide regular plant tours or prepare slide or video presentations of their operations. Business professionals could also take time to volunteer in schools and encourage their employees to do the same. Businesses need to provide tutors and mentors, particularly to schools in poor neighborhoods. Students miss out on opportunities because they have inadequate or incorrect information, or they don't know they can be successful because they have never spent much time with anybody who has known success.

Greater business involvement with education will not only give schools badly needed financial, technical and human support; it will also send a message to students that their schooling is important and that successful citizens are willing to help them make the most of their education. And participation from the business community need not only mean involvement of the rich and famous. Every business, from Fortune 500 to mom and pop, has a stake in an educated citizenry.

As school bells ring for the first time this year, we should remember they toll for all of us.

Craig B. Schulze is assistant principal of Harford Heights Elementary School in Baltimore City.

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