colin_powell_1.jpgWASHINGTON — The bitter debate taking place in the nation’s capitol over increasing the taxes paid by the rich to help with the debt ceiling and the budget deficit overshadowed an important meeting President Barack Obama convened on education that drew attendance by a range of business interests.

The July 18 roundtable at the White House also included former Secretary of State General Colin Powell, the founding chairman of America’s Promise Alliance, and his wife Alma Powell,  the alliance’s current chairwoman.

Administration officials present included Education Secretary Ernie Duncan, White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes.

The aim was to discuss “building upon strong industry-led partnerships that are working to transform the American education system,” a White House announcement said.

Corporate partners in attendance included representatives from the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Coalition for Student Achievement, the Business-Higher Education Forum and the United Way.

“A world-class education is the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs but whether America can outcompete countries around the world,” Obama said in the announcement.

“America's business leaders understand that when it comes to education, we need to up our game. That's why we’re working together to put an outstanding education within reach for every child,” he said.

The announcement commended some private sector initiatives that were aimed at such a goal. They included Change the Equation, which focuses on corporate investment in science, technology, engineering and math education, and Skills for America’s Future, which supports business partnerships with community colleges.

Initiatives unfolded as the discussions got started  and included:

• Community engagement and investment to transform the nation’s lowest-performing schools: In this project, America’s Promise Alliance Grad Nation Community Impact Fund will raise $50 million to support the goal of ending the dropout crisis and prepare young people for college and career.

The first planning grants from this “social venture fund” will be awarded in the fall to communities that demonstrate a commitment to local action aligned with the goals of the Grad Nation Campaign, including student supports for the most vulnerable young people.  Applicants will be communities with a low-performing school and a willingness and capacity to build a multi-sector, collaborative approach that includes partnerships with the business community and local school system and the capacity to raise matching funds to promote local investment to sustain this work.

• Expanding opportunities for students to prepare for livable-wage jobs: In this project, Bank of America was pledging $50 million to education over the next three years and was launching the pledge with $4.5 million in grants.

The money will support programs that bridge the achievement gap to post-secondary education completion and connect the underserved and unemployed, as well as returning veterans and individuals with disabilities, to jobs in high-growth sectors, particularly through community colleges. 

The White House announcement said Bank of America recognized the need for knowledgeable and skilled workers to compete in the global economy and its commitment of funds was part of a comprehensive approach to provide lending, investing and volunteer activities aimed at strengthening the economic and social health of communities.

• Research and development for next-generation learning models and resources for students and teachers: This initiative came through Microsoft Education which will put $15 million into research and development for immersive learning technologies, including game-based instruction and the creation of a lifelong learning digital archives.

Microsoft Education had already agreed to fund a $25 million STEM scholarship grant program in Washington State.

The fund’s new commitment will pay for the training of 150,000 educators and leaders over three years and provide access to professional learning communities and training to every teacher in the United States through a Partners in Learning Network.

• Supporting a state-wide focus on education system redesign: The Nike School Innovation Fund committed an additional $3 million to help strengthen education in Oregon. The fund previously provided $7 million in innovation grants and thousands of volunteer hours by senior Nike leaders and other employees to support students, teachers and principals in three Oregon public school districts.

With the new commitment, Nike will now provide a year of funding, expertise and policy guidance expected to serve as a model for the Oregon governor’s larger statewide education transformation plan.