Yes, the popular "homework hot line" for students and parents in St. Louis is a slick advertising gimmick for Domino's Pizza and Coca-Cola Co., but it is also a small indicator of the increasing role that business is playing in our schools.
More companies are wisely putting money and talent into efforts to improve schools, often working in close cooperation with the nation's two major teachers unions, the National Education Assn. and the American Federation of Teachers--and the unions' local affiliates.
Even small contributions from business are useful, including the crassly commercial sort such as the one in St. Louis.
There, Domino's Pizza and Coca-Cola are paying all the costs for the homework hot line, which thousands of students and parents phone toll-free for help on any school problem four nights a week.
The companies' payoff comes each time that teachers--all members of the National Education Assn. of St. Louis--answer the calls by saying, "Hello, this is the Domino's Pizza and Coca-Cola hot line. May I help you, please?"
Ted Tunison, project director for the union, says--sales pitch aside--the program fills a real need. But he wants St. Louis companies to do more for the schools, such as helping the union set up a power-sharing system in public education--like ones in Los Angeles and many other cities.
"Business leaders tell me they are ready to help us restructure our schools, but unfortunately our racially divided school board members are too damned busy fighting with each other to go ahead with such rational plans," Tunison fumes.
Elsewhere in the country, though, businesses are helping by providing funds and talent to radically restructure schools to give teachers, principals and parents new powers to make crucial decisions about how and what to teach kids.
This dramatic power-sharing concept shifts much authority away from boards of education and superintendents who traditionally have held a tight, stultifying grip on the reins of power.
In Los Angeles last week, 27 schools completed preliminary plans for implementing the power-sharing program that the United Teachers-Los Angeles won for all 600 schools here after a bitter strike last year.
Other schools in the district will soon complete their plans. The new superintendent, William R. Anton, is confident that, when they are all in place, they will produce an era of unaccustomed harmony between school management and teachers.
UTLA's new president, Helen Bernstein, was a driving force behind the union's push for power sharing, and, while she agrees with Anton that it will ultimately be a great success, she says it needs help from business.
To get that aid, the union and school officials are now trying to raise $10 million from business leaders to help train teachers for their new role as decision makers. The money should be given because school budgets generally are tight--especially so in California as the result of shortsighted school budget-cutting by Gov. George Deukmejian.
Some companies that use decision-sharing systems are offering firsthand advice to schools that want to create similar systems--preaching, as it were, what they practice.
In Milwaukee, Harley-Davidson plants already have cooperative, non-adversarial relationships among managers, workers and their unions, and the company is using its experience as a functioning model to teach teachers and school officials in some Milwaukee schools to do likewise.
There are thousands of other instances of business involvement in schools, with and without unions. A measure of the trend is the fact that more than 100,000 "school-business partnerships" have been created since 1983.
Some partnerships include management-union campaigns to get more public money for the schools.
Others provide significant gifts of money for such things as dropout-prevention programs and school-based management systems or materials such as computers.
Some business aid to schools is almost entirely self-serving, consisting only of what is called T-shirt assistance: T-shirts or similar gifts are offered to deserving students--with, of course, the company name prominently displayed.
Historically, business has concentrated its efforts to help education on universities or on their own company education programs. It is estimated that the public schools get only about 10% of the more than $2.5 billion that business gives to all forms of education each year.
That is changing, says Fritz Edelstein, senior policy chairman of the National Alliance of Business, which represents many of the country's largest corporations.
As the need for skilled workers increases, so does corporate awareness of the vital role that public education plays in filling that need, Edelstein notes.
Business, he says, is well-positioned to help train school personnel in the management techniques they need to make power sharing work, thereby freeing teachers and school officials from a traditionally regimented approach to education.
There is, though, an underlying danger in this trend: too much business influence in education.
We don't want more commercializations of education such as the homework hot line in St. Louis. And we have to avoid ending up with a business-oriented approach to education, no matter how helpful business can be to our schools.
Unionized teachers can assist by giving students a balanced view of our economic system, and schools should offer courses describing the historic role of labor as well as business in the economy.
Generally, though, the increasing cooperation between business and the teachers unions can give our schools a much-needed boost.