A new political group is blurring the lines even further between education and business. Members of the Business for Education Success and Transformation North Carolina, or BEST NC, said they will advocate for public education, including K-12 and higher education, in North Carolina.

Several prominent North Carolina business leaders, including Ann Goodnight, SAS CEO Jim Goodnight’s wife, launched BEST NC a few months ago. Currently, the group has 54 members. In addition to Goodnight, members include Jim Goodman, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting; Robert Niblock, CEO of Lowe’s; and Brad Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. 

Michael Maher, assistant dean for the College of Education, said though it’s difficult to quantify the relationship between education and business, the relationship exists. 

“It’s hard to deny that if you have high-quality schools you attract businesses to your state,” Maher said. “Employees who transfer or are brought in from outside of North Carolina expect good schools and teachers. Additionally, in today’s economy businesses demand a highly-educated and skilled workforce, which is where schools come in.”

Michael Walden, Reynolds Distinguished Professor of economics, also said there is a linkage between education and economic development. 

“The modern economy is built on a skilled labor force,” Walden said. “States with well-trained workers are most likely to attract jobs paying good wages.”

The group’s members say though BEST NC is an advocacy group, members will not lobby the government. Walter McDowell of Winston-Salem, a retired Wachovia executive, is chairman of the group. McDowell was unavailable for comment but did tell The News & Observer the group won’t endorse candidates or make political contributions. It aims to be nonpartisan, he said.

Maher said he thinks it will be challenging to effect change without lobbying. 

“If they will not lobby, how exactly will they promote their ideas for change?” Maher said. “This is a powerful group of individuals however, likely with some influence so perhaps they will be more effective than others have been.”

Walden said if BEST NC can present plans and ideas based on agreement from members spanning a wide range of political views, then he thinks this will enhance its ability to have those plans and ideas embraced by elected officials and leaders.

“There is a long-standing debate about whether education, particularly at the college level, should be more narrowly focused on skills for particular jobs or broadly grounded in general skills needed for any job,” Walden said. “My own view is that a mix is most useful.”

Walden said most employers want graduates who can communicate, have reasoning skills and are knowledgeable of economic and business issues. At the same time a student training to be a chemist needs specialized education in that discipline, Walden said. 

“However, something that I think everyone can agree with is that students should be aware of fields of study that are expected to lead to the best opportunities for obtaining a job,” Walden said. “Also, I think it is useful for colleges and universities to monitor how successful their graduates are in obtaining jobs and reaching certain levels of pay.”

Maher said businesses are usually not directly involved in schools or classrooms. Instead, these partnerships come indirectly.

“In Wake County there is an organization called Wake Education Partnership, which is an arrangement between WCPSS and local businesses,” Maher said. “Additionally, businesses often lend monetary or other support to different initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards.”

Still, Maher said he thinks treating our education more like a business isn’t a good idea. 

“Businesses are beholden to their bottom line, and their goal is to turn a profit,” Maher said. “Schools are not in the profit-making business, and we have a different type of responsibility. With that said, there might be some ways, specifically in the way budgets are managed that a more business-minded approach might be appropriate.”

Maher said BEST NC could be a great opportunity for North Carolina schools.

“This is a group of powerful and influential people and perhaps they can help sway some of the more drastic decisions that have been undertaken by the General Assembly,” Maher said.