Perot And Texas

By Julie A. Miller — June 17, 1992 15 min read
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At the heart of Ross Perot’s independent campaign for President is his appeal as a leader untainted by politics. But the Texas billionaire is hardly a neophyte in the public- policy arena.

In 1984, he ran a sophisticated political campaign-replete with consultants, news conferences, and staged events-that culminated in a merciless game of political hardball in the Texas Legislature.

The subject was education, and the result was one of the most comprehensive state school-reform laws ever enacted and what was then the largest tax increase in Texas history.

''The Texas education story is important, because it clearly shows Perot’s style,” Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University who worked on the reform plan as a consultant, said in an interview this month. “People say they want someone to come in from the outside with new idea, saying, ‘Let’s fix this in a new way.’ What people see in him is what he did in Texas education.”

In his campaign for President, Mr. Perot has thus far offered little detail of his policy views.

After a flurry of television appearances and interviews this spring, he is currently keeping a relatively low profile with the media and instead talking with experts and pondering policy questions.

This information-gathering enterprise bears more than passing resemblance to Mr. Perot’s systematic study of educational problems in Texas.

Indeed, while Texans differ on the impact of the reforms, both admirers and detractors y his stewardship of the effort provides a wealth of clues about both Mr. Perot’s likely stands on national education issues and his approach to public policy.

“He would launch a search for excellence in every nook and cranny of the U.S. on every subject that plagues us,” said Jon H. Fleming, a longtime Perot associate who was the president of Texas Wesleyan University when he served on the education commission led by Mr. Perot. “I have no idea who he would call on, but it wouldn’t be the education establishment.”

On the other hand, Lamont Veatch, the executive director of the Texas Association of Secondary-School Principals, which opposed the reform measure, said: “I really worry about him as a national leader .... From what I’ve seen, I’m not sure there’s much compromise with Mr. Perot.”

Added former Gov. Mark W. White in an interview last week: “Ross is a good guy, but I think his goals may be unachievable. He might break both the tub and the baby while throwing out the bathwater.”

Taking the Reins

In 1983, Governor White faced a classic political dilemma. He had won the governorship with substantial aid from Texas teachers’ associations. He had promised teachers a 24 percent pay raise and had pledged not to increase taxes.

But the state’s economy took a nose dive between the time Mr. White made those promises and the time he was in a position to deliver. He decided to keep his promise to the teachers by breaking the other. Legislators refused to go along.

The Governor’s next idea was to create a commission to study teacher pay. But when the legislature passed a bill creating the Select Committee on Public Education-popularly known as SCOPE-lawmakers gave it a broad mandate to study the whole public-education system.

Mr. White said he named Mr. Perot chairman because he thought his “outspoken leadership” would win the support of the business community and “neutralize the knotheads who resisted reality.”

John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, said Mr. White gave him this explanation: “If you say you need a pay raise, or I say so, no on will believe it. If Ross Perot say it, they’ll believe it.”

Mr. Perot started with a brainstorming tour of Texas schools and community meetings. The panel also gathered testimony from education groups and experts called in by Mr. Perot.

There were other prominent citizens on the committee, including a bloc of skeptical legislators. But Mr. Perot called the meetings, set the agenda, and directed the staff work.

He also, in effect, held the purse strings. In addition to the $68,500 in state funds budgeted for the panel, Mr. Perot spent an estimated $500,000 to $2 million of his own money on travel, consultants, and meetings in pursuing SCOPE’S work.

His personal lawyer, Thomas W. Luce, now a top campaign aide, was the de facto staff director.

The 32-Day Chicken

Mr. Perot also dominated news coverage of SCOPE-and captured the public’s attention-with folksy and quotable pronouncements of his views on education.

For example, in expressing his views on what he saw as the encroachment of extracurricular activities into time and resources that should be spent on academics, Mr. Perot railed against electric cleat cleaners and coaches’ salaries.

“We have diverted our schools from places of learning to places of play,” he liked to say.

Mr. Perot did not limit his jabs to athletics. He spoke often of a student who missed 32 days of the previous school year entering his prize chicken in farm shows.

Another favorite Perot target was the state board of education and its longtime chairman, Joe Kelly Butler, who he said had ruled “since the ark docked.”

Mr. Perot believed that the elected board was captive to politics and guilty of woeful mismanagement.

“They’ve got people who think the world is fiat,” he said, adding: “Go to Austin and sit in on a meeting. It costs $5 to see a movie that funny.”

A Matter of Style

Commission members and others offer widely divergent views on Mr. Perot’s style in running the panel. Some of Mr. Perot’s opponents contended that he ran SCOPE in a dictatorial fashion.

“He had a set agenda, and nothing was going to dissuade him from it,” Representative Bill Haley, then the chairman of the House education committee and now a state senator, told The Christian Science Monitor. But other members of the panel painted a different picture.

“When Ross Perot talks about building a consensus, I can assure you it’s been his style in my dealings with him,” said ‘Tony Bonilla, a lawyer who did not know Mr. Perot before he was named to the panel.

Added John I. Goodlad, a professor at the University of Washington: “The fact that he was willing to sit with the others for five hours and ask questions about my research shows a willingness to learn.”

Mr. Kirst said Mr. Perot began by gathering impressions, then “asked people like me to react” to them.

Later, he solicited “ideas for change,” and enlisted consultants, primarily from the business community, to work on details of the package, Mr. Kirst said.

Doug Rogers, the executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said teachers viewed it as “a slap in the face” when Mr. Perot did not include them in the panel’s deliberative processes.

However, even some observers who opposed the SCOPE plan praised the way it was developed.

“The man did his homework,” said Jeri Stone, the executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. “He met with the groups, he got the perspective of various players, he listened.”

The SCOPE Report

Under the SCOPE recommendations, teachers were to get a pay raise, but, in return, they would have to take competency tests, and some of the money would come in the form of career-ladder bonuses. Accreditation requirements for teacher-training institutions would be tightened.

Students would have to earn passing grades of a 70 in every class to participate in extracurricular activities, and achieve a 70 average to be promoted to the next grade. Those who were absent more than five times would lose course credit. A testing program would be instituted, including exams required for graduation.

State subsidies for vocational programs would be eliminated. The school day and year would be longer. All districts would offer full-day kindergarten and preschool for disadvantaged 4-year-olds.

Class sizes in early grades would be limited to 20. State funds would be directed to poor school districts. The elected state board would be replaced by one appointed by the governor.

Coaches were up in arms. Administrators and school-board members feared the cost of teacher bonuses, class-size limits, and preschool programs. Vocational educators lobbied to save their programs. State board members lobbied to save their jobs.

Ironically, the teachers Mr. White had sought to please were outraged by the competency test and skeptical about the career ladder. The T.F.T. was the only one of the four teachers’ groups to support the bill.

“Our members didn’t want to take the test any more than anyone else,” Mr. Cole said. “But there were a lot of other things in there we believed in.”

Teachers React

But many teachers disagreed. Mr. White said last week that he received death threats and urine samples in the mail, and that he was dogged by teachers holding insulting protest signs. He specifically recalled a teacher wearing a bag over his head with the inscription, “I’m embarrassed that I voted for Mark White.”

“The problem,” Mr. White said, “is that he spelled ‘embarrassed’ wrong. That’s just what we were trying to address.”

The teachers obtained their revenge in 1986, when Mr. White failed to win re-election. But the SCOPE plan emerged from the legislature remarkably intact.

Speaker of the House Gibson Lewis and Lieut. Gov. William Hobby, the leader of the Senate, had been actively involved on the commission. Most observers give them primary credit for shepherding the package through the legislature.

However, while Mr. Perot made few appearances in the state Capitol, he played a key role by preaching school reform to his peers in the business community and urging them to use their influence over legislators. He also hired a team of high-powered lobbyists.

The cause was also aided by a national interest in school reform sparked by the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” which gave the effort context and increased media interest.

“It was one of those remarkable moments when something momentous happens because everything lines up in the right place,” Mr. Cole of the T.F.T. said.

Class-size limits were t at 22, rather than 20; the school day and year remained the same length; vocational programs did not lose their state subsidies; and the new, appointed state board had to stand for election in four years. But Mr. Perot got most of what he wanted.

He--and his lobbyists--returned several times in later years to beat back repeal efforts.

Mixed Results

“Education became the focal point in the state, whereas, for the 25 years prior to education reform, it was ignored,” said Mary Helen Burlanga, the only member of the original state board still in office.

Observers generally agree with that assessment, but they differ in their evaluations of the impact of the reforms.

Most educators think the no-pass, no-play rule and the attendance requirement have spurred students to work harder. But others argue that borderline students barred from extracurricular activities have gotten discouraged and dropped out, and that other students have avoided challenging courses.

“I’d challenge anybody to show a large improvement in education in Texas,” Mr. Veatch of the principals’ association said.

The number of high-school students passing all exit exams dropped from 83 percent in 1986 to 72 percent in 1987, when the tests were made more difficult, and rose to 77 percent in 1989.

The number of students in earlier grades achieving minimum scores on statewide tests has increased each year. But scores on college-entrance exams have stagnated.

Teachers are still angry about the competency test. Although 99 percent of the teachers who took it passed, about 1,100 did not.

“The profession was indicted,” said Mr. Rogers of the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “Morale still suffers.”

But the reform effort’s largest shortcoming, many believe, was fiscal.

The tax bill raised $4.7 billion over two years, $2.8 billion of it for education. The Governor had asked for $4.8 billion for education alone.

Teacher salaries rose dramatically in the first year after the SCOPE reforms; the average increased from $20,170 to $25,160.

But in 1989, the last year for which the U.S. Education Department published ranked data, Texas’ average salary was only $26,513, 31st among the states. That year, the state’s per-pupil education revenue totaled $3,993, well below the national average of $4,758 and 36th among states.

Due to a lack of funding, the career ladder has not been fully implemented.

And while teacher groups praise the class-size limits and preschool mandate, other observers note that the state did not pay for them.

The reforms “got us into the financial problems we’re in now,” Mr. Veatch said. “If the state had funded the mandates, we might have had more progress, but they put the burden on local districts.”

Although they got a large share of the new funds, the mandates were particularly hard on poor districts, said Norma Cantu, the education director at the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund.

“The bill obviously did not solve the school-finance problem; we had to continue in court,” she said, noting that the state Supreme Court declared Texas’ school-finance system unconstitutional in 1990.

“I think we could have been more artful about it,” Mr. White said.

But, “over all,” he added, “I think [the package] was a great success.”

An Education Advocate

One side effect of the Texas reform battle was to turn Ross Perot into a national education advocate.

In 1984 and 1985, he spoke at many education-related gatherings about his experiences in Texas, urging reformers to “stand up to the interest groups.”

In recent years, Mr. Perot has spoken often about education to corporate audiences, urging them to get involved in schools-if only out of “pure self-interest.”

In 1989, for example, he told business leaders at a charity luncheon in Washington: “You’ve got one of the worst school systems in the country right here.”

“Get out of your fancy house,” he said, “and get down where the rubber meets the road.”

Mr. Perot’s standard education speech was published as an opinion article in The Washington Post in 1988, and it has not changed; he made nearly identical remarks at a conference last month.

Mr. Perot bemoans the nation’s rank “at the bottom of the industrialized world in terms of achievement” and economic competition, and notes that school problems have changed from gum-chewing to guns.

He talks about the problems he uncovered in Texas, and says the most important reform was the preschool mandate.

The one specific education policy he has proposed is neighborhood early-intervention centers for disadvantaged children.

“A little school down the street-a school where people encourage you, tell you you’re going to be somebody, teach you your numbers and letters- that school can make a very big difference to you if you’re a child from an impoverished family,” he says in his speech.

Texas observers unanimously predict that education would be a priority in a Perot Administration, as he has said it would be.

They also say he would probably try to increase its share of the federal budget, with particular attention to such early-childhood programs as Head Start.

Mr. Perot recently waffled on that point, saying in one interview that he would not raise taxes and in another that he would do so to spur educational improvement.

Noting his emphasis on accountability, some observers predict Mr. Perot would probably support national standards and high-stakes assessment, currently a hot issue in the Congress.

As fur school choice, the other hot education issue at the federal level, Mr. Fleming, the longtime Perot associate, said he knows Mr. Perot supports it, “because it allows, in essence, the free-enterprise system to work.”

Education Philanthropy

While his interest in education policy was launched with a gubernatorial appointment, Mr. Perot has long had a philanthropic interest in education.

A majority of the donations reported by the Perot Foundation on tax forms were scholarships for individual students and gifts to schools and colleges.

Mr. Perot’s largest bequests have gone to Texas colleges and universities. In 1987, he gave $70 million to the University of Texas Health Science Center, the largest donation the state university had ever received.

The foundation, which Mr. Perot started in 1969, has made regular donations to private schools that were attended by his son and four daughters: the Hockaday School, an elite college-preparatory school for girls; St Mark’s School of Texas, a similarly selective boys’ school; and St Michael School, an elementary school affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

The Perot Foundation has also given millions of dollars to public schools in the Dallas area, and the funds that passed through the foundation probably represent only a fraction of Mr. Perot’s generosity.

For example, a spokesman for the Dallas Independent School District said the billionaire agreed in 1969 to give the then-segregated district $2.377 million over three years for projects to improve inner-city schools. The spokesman said he donated another $100,000 in 1971 to I start a fund that supplied cash awards to outstanding teachers.

But, the spokesman said, only about 60 percent of those donations appeared on the foundation’s forms.

The foundation, which also gave $200,000 to the Fort Worth schools in 1971, reported no gifts to precollegiate education between 1974 and 1989.

But in 1990, it reported giving $1,000 to Berkner High School in the Richardson Independent School District for an anti-drug program, and $15,000 to the Keller Independent School District, which is located north of Dallas.

Thomas Myers, the district’s superintendent, said the Perot family has actually given Keller schools 90,000, which has been used primarily to launch programs that identify at-risk students at a young age and supply intervention services. He said the family became interested in the area’s schools as they began developing property holdings there into an airport and housing developments.

Mr. Myers said the Perots also paid for utility hookups at a new school that was built in a development they were involved in, and I they have helped him in other ways.

“If I have a project and I need help, I that’s who I call,” Mr. Myers said. “If they say they’ll do something, they do it, and they do it on a handshake.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as Perot And Texas


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