JITE v40n3 - Employer-Linked Charter Schools: Origins Of the Central Education Center

Volume 40, Number 3
Spring 2003

Employer-Linked Charter Schools: Origins Of the Central Education Center

Richard D. Lakes
Georgia State University

The latest model for educational reform emerging in the career and technical education delivery system of the United States is the employer-linked charter school (ELCS) that brings a variety of stakeholders into the organizational design of workforce development. Parents as well as industry leaders take active responsibility in the actual policymaking process of school operations as school board members. ELCS stakeholders exclusively play a major role in the governance of the school through key assignments to steering committee and board seats, and offer input into curriculum and instruction arenas. Successful model building along these lines requires a coalition of interested parties. Educators, parents, employers, and government officials come together with school-to-work programming foremost in their mind.

At the close of the 20th century, a closer alignment between economic interests and educational parties in the shaping of school-to-work reform indicated a growing policy consensus about career and technical education (Crowson, Wong, & Aypay, 2000). Significantly, the apparent widespread acceptance of this reform movement, often touted as the new career and technical education, links healthy public schooling to the economic welfare of local communities (Benson, 1997). Crowson, Wong, and Aypay explained "there is currently an encouraging upswing in concern for the future of the non-college bound and a renewed interest generally in a better understanding of the school-to-employment transition" (p. 243).

Declining enrollments in trade and industrial education programs in the early 1990s led policymakers to chart educational reforms that would facilitate youth transitions into postsecondary education or work. Carlson (1997) argued that not only did these programs have a difficult time finding job placement for their graduates, but employers desired future workers prepared with broader skill sets in mathematics and academic literacy, instead of narrowly defined trade specializations. Additionally, the intractability of gender-segregated career and technical education programs failed to change with the times; and, according to Carlson, the image problem of career and technical education as being a dumping ground for low-achieving students needed to be reversed, "since policymakers could claim that by eliminating such programs they were promoting higher standards for students" (p. 47-48).

The ELCS concept is defined as a "partnership with employers who are directly involved in the school's design, governance and delivery of learning to students" (Public Policy Associates, National Alliance for Business, & Michigan Future, 1998, p. 1). This concept was initially recognized in 1997 by the U.S. Department of Education as a powerful tool for demonstrating how some of the premises of school-based reforms, such as parental choice, changing skill sets, and active learning, can be integrated into the administrative system of career and technical education. Of particular concern among industrialists at that time, in part represented by over 5,000 members in the National Alliance of Business, were implications of the new economic turn toward globalization, skilled labor shortages, restructuring within the manufacturing sector, the rise of computerized information systems, and greater attention to customer service, all of which impacted the training of young people, future workers, to learn changing workplace proficiencies.

Coterminous with on-going questions about the educational system's responsiveness to workforce development was the heightened awareness of some policymakers that newly enacted and federally-funded charter school legislation just might provide the right set of conditions to achieve new educational innovations that would offer "significant new marketplace dynamics in public education. With their increased flexibility, such schools provide a rich and growing laboratory for redefining public education" (Public Policy Associates et al., 1999, p. 2).

U.S. policymakers endorsed this model of workforce development precisely because the design offers independence in which to circumvent traditional bureaucracy within the public school system, as well as to leverage change so that a variety of participants become directly invested in the bottom-up process of reform. Thus the process is designed to "assemble a learning program to meet today's learning needs and goals for students and stakeholders such as employers" (Public Policy Associates et al., 1998, p. 14).

Federal charter school legislation began in 1994 with the authorization of $15 million for state distribution to help fund start-up expenses. In 1998, Congress renewed the law and increased spending to $100 million for fiscal year 1999 (Leal, 1999). Choice-conscious parents and other constituents quickly adopted a variety of entrepreneurial endeavors in the nation. In Arizona, charter applications were granted to a diversity of schools that followed philosophies from Montessori to Waldorf, Hirsch's Core Knowledge schools, back-to-basics themes, career and technical education, and schools for at-risk youth, among others (Stout & Garn, 1999). In the 1997-1998 academic year, nationally 70% of charter schools were newly created start-ups; the remainder were split between preexisting private and public schools that switched to charter status (Good & Braden, 2000). By 1999, over 1,500 U.S. charter schools were in operation or had been approved to begin classes (Smith, 2001).

Charter schools are tenured for periods anywhere from a short 3 years (in Georgia) to as long as 15 years (in Arizona), but can be renewed depending upon state mandates (Good & Braden, 2000). One attractive feature of charter schools is scale, with median student enrollments only about 25% that of conventional public schools (Yancey, 2000). This usually means a lower student-teacher ratio. Although unshackled from laws governing a host of operations (e.g., pertaining to teacher qualifications or the delivery of cafeteria meals), charter schools are accountable for improved student achievement; and school leaders must show evidence of measurable outcomes through timely evaluations.


This manuscript presents an analysis of the founding stages of the Central Education Center (CEC), an ELCS that was approved in a city of 16,000 residents in the state of Georgia in 1999. The school opened in August 2000 with an initial enrollment of about 400 students in grades 10 to 12. Of particular interest is the cross-fertilization of secondary and post-secondary program offerings called "seamless education" within one building that required articulation agreements between the county board of education and the state technical college system.

The policy research method used for this study is known as focused synthesis. According to Majchrzak (1984), existing information on the school is written up in literature review style. Data on the start-up of the school was gathered through digital research databases, articles, and local and regional newspapers, as well as semi-structured interviews with the major stakeholders, unpublished manuscripts and memoranda from steering committee members, ephemera including letters of support from governmental officials, and field notes on aspects of the school operations.

The interviews with eight stakeholders lasting approximately one hour each were conducted on-site over a four-month interval in early 2002, and included (a) two members of the CEC steering committee (one was the curriculum director of the county school system, and the other was a performance technologist and educational consultant); (b) the chief executive officer, who supervises and coordinates partnerships among businesses, the school system, and the technical college; (c) the director of the county Chamber of Commerce; (d) the plant manager of a well-known metals extrusion company; (e) an adult literacy specialist; and (f) two employees of the State of Georgia Department for Technical and Adult Education, one of whom was the commissioner, and the other a director of special projects.

Transcriptions were prepared and analyzed in order to gather information useful in reconstructing the school model, as well as in gaining knowledge about the values and assumptions held by the major players. Unlike a literature review that precedes primary data collection, this technical analysis alone serves as the basis for the synthesized information presented herein, a descriptive narrative of the charter school start-up.

The Stakeholders

A number of nations now dedicated to skill upgrading have exhibited social partnerships that use consensus-seeking practices and stakeholder involvement in career and technical education policy. Brown (2001) named the process "building national settlements" among government, employers, and workers, and noted it was distinguished foremost by trust and cooperation (p. 36). "The more workplace learning, innovation, and productivity are seen to depend on technical, interpersonal, and self-management skills of a large proportion of the workforce," he wrote, "the more the discretionary commitment to acquire skills, to be innovative and creative, to work constructively with others, matters in terms of overall performance of the economy" (p. 33). Finlay (1998) advanced the notion of participatory democracy embedded in stakeholder politics, but recognized the tension in achieving consensus among constituents who have been historically situated as rivals. He ventured that it is possible to agree "on a set of shared values about education while group members retain very different political and religious values" (p. 11). Brand (1998) insisted that career and technical education and training policy formation in the United States was a direct result of such consensual alliances operating at the state, local, and national levels, explicitly among six stakeholder groups: students, parents of students, employers, taxpayers, educational representatives, and government officials and policymakers.

One commonality shared by stakeholders linked with the creation of the CEC was their recognition of the importance of up-skilling or reskilling the local labor force. The CEO, with over 18 years of experience in banking, declared that businesses considering relocation to the county always evaluate labor's access to educational facilities: "Companies used to look first for a workforce but they figured out in this new economy, nobody has the workforce" able to perform at the skilled level. The president of the county Chamber of Commerce explained that corporations not presently located there would look to the CEC as "a training ground to help build their companies."

The local plant manager, instrumental in alerting the county school superintendent to the problems of workforce development, concurred that a difficult labor market plaguing the industry for years was now magnified by the changing technical requirements employees are expected to carry in their mental toolboxes. Highly computerized manufacturing processes in the metals extrusion industry required more depth of training beyond simply reading a rule and calculating fractions. Even so, many prospective employees have difficulty passing sixth-grade math and reading tests administered by the company. He firmly believed in continuous improvement, a process devoted to monitoring the quality of in-house manufacturing and administrative practices as well as the growth of human capital development. In fact, the firm's commitment to local educational institutions included holding a seat on the CEC steering committee during the planning and design stages and on the board of directors at the nearby technical college, which reflected a dedication to business-industry-education partnerships. Additionally, the plant manager admired seamless education combining secondary and postsecondary career and technical education programs in one building so that students no longer had to surmount articulation hurdles. "I'm still amazed to this day," he stated, "that we took a local school system that has a whole separate set of objectives, budgets, everything and we took a technical school that is part of a state system that's got its own goals and objectives, and prior to this (CEC) they didn't even talk to each other."

The state department of education commissioner spoke about the seamless educational process and the potential integration of secondary and postsecondary career and technical education throughout the state. "When you marry a technical college and a (charter) high school together, the essential pieces of the way you do business go with it," he argued, allowing for a "great deal of flexibility." One example of this can be seen in the offer of dual credits to students for taking courses for college credit. "There are basically two entities that are fused together in the school," the commissioner said about the charter model, "and I challenge you to tell me when you walk down the hall which is which."

The state's governor worked closely with the stakeholders in the chartering process and matched $7 million as an incentive grant (the county provided $7 million in an existing middle-school facility and surrounding acreage for the project). In addition the county provided $2 million in a "Special Local Option Sales Tax," a one-cent sales tax increase to be used for capital construction to renovate the facility. Area businesses and industries contributed another $500,000. At the school's groundbreaking observance and again at the dedication ceremony, the governor touted the advantages of this workforce development model of seamless education that collapsed the compartmentalized silos of secondary and postsecondary education (Holsendolph, 2002; Skinner, 2002). Moreover, he listed four reasons why the CEC should become an exemplary state model: (a) it used the resources of the state's postsecondary technical college system; (b) it allowed articulation no matter where students are physically enrolled; (c) it involved business leaders in planning the school; and (d) it drew upon the charter school law to create a publicly-funded experimental form of educating children.

The Champion

Brand (1998) noted that for a stakeholder group to initiate a number of targeted activities or get off the ground, it was essential to identify an agent or champion of change. While champions could be more than one person, including a group or alliance of leaders, they nonetheless "must be able to articulate a vision of what effective change would mean for the primary stakeholders, and then be able to expand that vision to other stakeholders, in order to build support" (p. 146). Champions or change agents must reach out and build a coalition of community constituents who support the vision.

In the beginnings of the CEC, the champion was an educational consultant and retired performance technologist, a local resident with over 30 years working with private industry in solving training problems related to changes in manufacturing. Here the champion, author of an award-winning book on human resource development, applied his know-how of career and technical education curriculum development to the business- industry-education community partnership by serving as the chair of the CEC steering committee prior to gaining the charter and directing the 22 members responsible for constructing the model. The steering committee consisted of a state legislator, representatives from three area postsecondary institutions, staff from the county school district office, in-town governmental officials, and area business leaders

Members of the steering committee began planning in earnest several years before charter approval, with a study of area employment concerns and analysis of data from the state department of labor, the area technical colleges, and national sources. In addition, a local needs assessment designed in consultation with the champion was distributed to businesses; and results were tabulated for about 50 organizations employing nearly 10,000 people. The survey identified over 75 job titles, of which one half were from the manufacturing sector. Among a number of findings about the future of economic development impacting educational services in the region, respondents noted that job growth was expected to accelerate. More to the point, area employers and community leaders were troubled by inadequate preparation of job seekers. About one third of the citizens in the county did not have a high school diploma (college graduates numbered less than 15%), and teenage pregnancy rates were four points above the state average of 16%. Both statistics represented potential impediments in producing a quality workforce in the future (21st Century Coweta, 1999).

The survey noted which potential career and technical education course offerings employers might want to see provided by the CEC. Four occupational clusters were identified at that time: (a) human services, with programs in child care and foods; (b) health and medical, with programs in health occupations and certified nursing assistant; (c) business, marketing, and information systems, with programs in graphic arts, marketing, and business education; and (d) technology and engineering, with programs in computer repair and networking, construction, metals, and manufacturing. Worth mentioning was the common point of view that the CEC would consolidate career and technical education program offerings in career clusters that had been taught at three area high schools; hence, course duplication would be minimized and staffing patterns centralized at the new facility.

Of particular interest to the steering committee planners were survey results indicating local employers' discontent with the work deficiencies of new hires: tardiness, absences, poor teamwork, unsafe behavior, resentfulness of authority, conflicts with supervisors, cursing, theft, racist/sexist actions, and so forth. The champion was most adamant that the CEC could deliver a curriculum to answer the need for soft skills in addition to technical accomplishment-based content. In fact, his research on employers indicated a strong desire to have schools teach the work ethic and related topics (Harless, 1998). Today the CEC uses an evaluative rubric covering 10 work ethic traits, confirming the champion's determination to promote good student-work attitudes.

School Organization

Parents, educators, and industry representatives composed the CEC board's administrative structure as directed by charter school law. Of the 17-member governing council, 9 seats were for parents, 4 for faculty and administration, and 4 for business representatives (1 seat was designated for small firms less than 100 employees, 1 for large firms greater than 100 employees, 1 representative from the Chamber of Commerce, and 1 from the business community at large). Due to the seamless articulation model, two of the four CEC board seats for faculty/staff were designees from the county secondary-level school system and the technical college system; both could hold dual appointments on their own system's board as well.

Charter schools in Georgia must exhibit performance goals to improve student learning as well as a plan for measuring progress along these lines. Toward that end, the CEC charter petitioners initially proposed reducing the high school dropout rate to 5%, increasing attendance by 3%, and raising pass rates on graduation tests by several percentage points over the five-year term. Even more ambitious was the goal to place at least 95% of the CEC completers in related postsecondary programs or allied jobs within 90 days after graduation.

Noteworthy are the CEC community education functions serving adults, such as preparation for noncompleters of a General Educational Development (GED) diploma and the evening high school. The CEC provides off-campus learning activities, with opportunities for job shadowing, supervised paid or unpaid internships, and long-term youth apprenticeships. Other work-based experiences are the Habitat for Humanity chapter, which has partnered with the CEC for help in its homebuilding projects serving low-income residents (Skinner, 2001b), and the Preservation Trust Society that has asked CEC students to help in the restoration of a historic in-town property (Sager, 2002).

Economic Development

Charter school models embrace the ideal of parental choice, institutional autonomy, and shared decision-making, three of the most popular strategies embodied in the United States educational reform movement (Whitty, Power, & Halpin, 1998). Yet employer-linked charter schools in particular are expected to strengthen the quality of the local workforce while providing employers with a pool of qualified candidates. Some policymakers view enterprise development linked to local school programs as a key to facilitating youth transitions. Kelly and Kenway (2001) suggested that the current thinking in career and technical education is based upon an understanding of geographic networks or nodes. For instance, in an attempt to minimize future risks of employability due to changing global markets, student training and job sites are placed in close proximity to one another, in industrial or enterprise zones resulting in shifts from urban to rural locales. This is the case for the CEC. The school can point to its role in stimulating economic development as sited in a rural/suburban zone about 45 minutes by automobile from the city of Atlanta, identifiable by the rise in industrial growth and business expansion in the county.

Worldwide firms are being drawn to the county, due in part to technology and industrial parks that can waive import duties for merchandise used in assembly, packaging and processing, or distribution (Robertshaw, 1990). Industrial recruiters can promise state-authorized reduced rate contracts on natural gas and electric power, specifically to curb the threat of firms desiring to leave in search of cheaper suppliers elsewhere (Quinn, 1997). Evidently, rate rollbacks are justified as a kind of tax abatement that keeps people employed in Georgia. Similarly, nonunion labor in the region is touted in economic development circles. Such is the justification in neighboring southeastern states which successfully lure foreign automakers with generous subsidies. Mercedes received over $250 million, or $167,000 for each of its 1,500 jobs opened at an Alabama plant in 1993; and another $253.8 million went to Hyundai. Nissan was courted with a $295 million package of incentives in Mississippi, and BMW selected South Carolina for comparable reasons (Cobb, 2002). Daimler-Chrysler has settled for an industrial site in the Savannah area in which to build a cargo van plant, but reportedly once eyed a large tract of land in the southern part of the county (Jackson, 2000b; Paul, 2000).

The business enticements just mentioned brought Slumberland Corporation, a British-owned mattress company with manufacturing and showroom sites in 40 countries, to the county with an investment of $20 million and a promise of 150 jobs. Prince Philip was on hand to ceremonially open the plant as well as to meet with county students engaged in school-based entrepreneurship training (Smith, 2000a; 2000b). Yamaha Corporation, which initially threatened to leave the state, expanded its local operations employing about 800 workers to the tune of $50 million and a promise of another 300 jobs in its golf cart division (Paul, 2000). Another large private employer in the county, the William L. Bonnell Company, founded in 1956, employs approximately 750 people.

Importantly, the CEC is credited with keeping Yamaha from looking elsewhere. It will deliver customized technical training for future workers in a technology lab installed at the school with a $25,000 donation from the company (Ellis, 2001; Paul, 2000). In fact, the charter school is a regular stop on economic development tours by international visitors investigating expansion possibilities in the county. Representatives from about 20 telecommunications and software firms in Finland, for instance, toured Newnan's technology parks and the Center (Jackson, 2000a; Paul, 2000). Business partners such as the 3M Corporation provided $107,000 worth of fiber-optic material and labor for the schools' 800 computers, and Lab-Volt of New Jersey donated $126,000 in equipment for the information technology program at the CEC (Foster, 2001; Skinner, 2001a).


Understandably, many are uneasy with the intrusion of business elites' influence, power, and control within public education. Apple (2001) and Molnar (1996), among others, pointed out that granting economic development inducements to corporations emboldens businesses to privilege their educational imperatives at taxpayer expense. Carlson (1997) explained the logic: "If only schools could turn out more high-skilled workers, there would be fewer low-skill, low-paying jobs in the economy" (p. 57). Yet this thinking is flawed, he continued, because corporate policies favor hiring cheap labor in the service sector, using temporary and contingent workers. Apple claimed that high-tech education impacts a very small minority of the paid workforce. "More cashiers' jobs will be created by the year 2005," he surmised, "than jobs for computer scientists, systems analysts, physical therapists, operations analysts, and radiological technicians combined" (p. 43).

In spite of the criticism, school choice reformers believe that free market policies optimize resources and reward entrepreneurial endeavors, an ideological position advanced by so-called neo-liberals or market capitalists (Korten, 1995; Wells, Slayton, & Scott, 2002). Grubb (1996, p. 137) pointed out the "contradictory messages" emerging from rhetorical claims of business and industry in the past two decades, ones that are driving the new career and technical education. Wirth (1992) also cautioned that the business perspective on schooling offered a mixed message because its historic stance on technical, job-specific schooling has benefited Fordism alone, not self-actualized personhood and egalitarian community. The promise of the new career and technical education, he continued, is that all children could have access to an education in what is termed symbolic-analytical learning: solving, identifying, and brokering problems by manipulating symbols and using abstractions, systems thinking, experimentation, and collaboration.

Certainly the employer-linked charter school model encourages community participation in career and technical education through closer working partnerships with a variety of stakeholders. Rising industry standards make it harder for educators invested in job training to fully identify and chart the sea change in career pathways and skills preparation. Consequently, industrial representatives lend their expertise to redefining learning outcomes within the world of work. "Partnerships with businesses are central to the integration of workplace skills with academic and technical coursework," noted Raby (1995), a curriculum consultant and national expert on school-within-school career academies. "Formation and maintenance of strong school/business partnerships are not easy tasks," she cautioned; "Often, neither schools nor businesses know how to collaborate in such efforts, much less take the lead to clearly define the roles for each entity" (pp. 88-89).

ELCS models showcase training for the new economy and just may revive declining student enrollments in career and technical education, a development that roughly parallels labor market changes in skill levels over the past two decades (Hurst & Hudson, 2000). For example, evidence from U.S. high school transcripts in the years 1982 to 1998 revealed a pattern of below-average course enrollment in two occupational areas: trade and industry (production, craft, and repair) and business (secretaries and typists). However, that downturn was offset by above average growth rates in technology and communications, food service, health, and child-care clusters. Traditional career and technical education course enrollment has given way to a trend in academic preparation as more and more occupations require some type of advanced educational linkages to postsecondary credentials (Levesque, Lauen, Teitelbaum, Librera, & MPR Associates, 2000).

Industrial teacher educators will find that reformers' desire to overcome the uncertainty in the new economy with the rise of outsourcing, contingent labor, service sector jobs, and underemployment or unemployment indicates how important it is for students to have pathways or transitional plans for job-related success, career advancement, and upward mobility. Those once secure in the labor market as high school graduates now are adrift in what Beck (1992) terms the risk society, with no safety net in place to cushion the fall. Career and technical education charter schools are one of a number of alliances with businesses in an often overlooked attempt to shore up local infrastructures by creating school-community-work networks.


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Lakes is Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Social Foundations of Education at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Lakes can be reached at rlakes@gsu.edu.

Tracy Gilmore