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Perkins And The Benefits Of Collaboration

Our guest author today is Stan Litow, a professor of Public Policy at both Duke and Columbia University. He is a former deputy chancellor of schools in New York City, former president of the IBM Foundation, a trustee of the State University of New York, and a member of the Albert Shanker Institute’s board of directors. His book, The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward, was published this year.

This July, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, after a dozen years of inaction, unanimously passed legislation to update the Federal Career and Technical Education law. By doing so, Congress increased funding for Career and Technical Education to nearly $1.3 billion in the coming year. The law is called the Perkins Act, named after a former member of Congress. It can go a long way toward addressing America’s skills crisis and providing many of our young people with real economic opportunity. Given the contentious Washington climate, broad bipartisan support for Perkins—including strong private sector, labor union and education backing—is truly noteworthy. But as we consider how this happened, it brings to mind another action that took place more than 80 years ago involving another Perkins: Frances Perkins.

On the 25th anniversary of Social Security, Frances Perkins, America's first cabinet member to be a woman, said "It would not have happened without IBM." Many who saw her on film were surprised. President Roosevelt was usually critical of the private sector. What had IBM to do with Social Security? Actually a lot. After the bill to establish Social Security was signed, the Labor Department under Perkins had to implement it. She sought outside help to design an implementation plan, yet everyone she approached said it would take years. When she approached Tom Watson Sr., IBM's CEO, she got a different answer. His team of engineers told him it might be possible to implement it sooner, but it would require the investment of several million dollars (about a hundred million in today’s dollars) to create what they called a "collator."

Because working with the government required response to a competitive “Request for Proposal,” the actual development of such a machine would need to be "eaten" by IBM. Watson approved the funding, IBM got the contract and 26 million Americans working at 3 million U.S. companies were part of Social Security's launch. Perkins was right; there would not have been a workable Social Security if IBM had not been willing to work in close partnership with labor and government leaders to see that the job got done.

Fast forward to today, to another issue named Perkins. The Perkins Act owes its success to many, but the private sector working closely with labor played a crucial role here. This law, which governs what used to be called vocational education, is often thought of as a dead end for students who lag behind academically. The bill, which sunset in 2006, then stalled and failed to be updated. Partisan politics stood in the way. The old legislation basically distributed dollars based on the number of students in each state, regardless of the effectiveness of each state’s programs. Like a lot of government efforts, it needed a total refresh. In 2011 IBM, working in collaboration with education and union leaders, helped to create a new model for Career and Technical Education, called P TECH. It had strong industry involvement, incorporating workplace skills into the curriculum, aligning high school to college courses over grades 9 to 14, with mentoring, paid internships, both a high school and an associate’s degree, and the important promise that graduates would be first in line for high-wage jobs. It spread rapidly, engaging 400 companies across seven states serving low-income students of color, with college completion rates 500 percent higher than the national average. Importantly, the schools are regular public schools with open enrollment. While innovative, the schools use union teachers and comply with all existing rules and regulations. In 2011, P TECH was identified as a prototype for the federal legislation governing how more than a billion dollars in federal resources would be distributed, and IBM worked collaboratively with education leaders and the AFT in putting together a bipartisan strategy to get it enacted into law.

Step one was to develop the core elements of a new legislative approach. Following the P TECH design, this included a focus on connecting programs to labor market data, so funding would follow not just any training but be linked to high-wage career opportunities, not dead end jobs. Second, the legislation would provide a role for employers, ensuring that programs would specifically connect to marketable workplace skills. Third, was a clear pathway from high school to college, recognizing that most 21st Century careers require more than just a high school diploma. And finally, there would be a focus on experiential education, so students could both pursue solid academics and hone their skills in a real work environment. The law isn't perfect, but it goes a long way toward providing a promising future for tens of thousands of students. And it helped to unite legislators, as they worked together with key stakeholders across the nation.

Step two was to assemble a large coalition of hundreds of organizations, across the business, labor, civil rights and educational sectors, to demonstrate that passage would face few if any opposition forces. Indeed, it was universally applauded. And finally, execution required persistence, keeping the coalition together and moving forward over nearly seven long years. Amazingly it worked. With support from business, education and labor leaders, working together, the strategy was put into place and executed in a truly collaborative way. Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate exhibited real leadership, signing on and voted yes.

We are living in an environment where many are criticizing every conceivable action by the private sector. To some, they are the cause of every societal ill. And, while there are certainly far too many examples of bad corporate behavior, in the 1930s with Social Security and in 2018 with Career and Technical Education, progressive action was achieved by the private sector choosing to work with others toward a common goal. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from both eras and find a more collaborative way to work together for the sake of all of our futures. 

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