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H. Ross Perot : Investing in America Means Investing in Public Schools

December 22, 1991|Alan C. Miller | Alan C. Miller covers Congress for The Times. He interviewed H. Ross Perot when the entrepreneur was visiting The Times' Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — H. Ross Perot is, if nothing else, an American original.

Combative, impatient and cocksure, he is a blend of corporate know-how and Norman Rockwell populism. He speaks contemptuously of presidents he's known and respectfully of workers he's met over lunch at "ordinary restaurants where ordinary people work and eat."

One of America's wealthiest men, Perot, 61, often recalls his humble beginnings in Texarkana, Tex. Few of his contemporaries are more colorful--or more controversial.

A U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Perot founded Electronic Data Systems in 1962, with a $1,000 check, and sold it to General Motors for $2.5 billion and a seat on the board of directors. But, after clashing with GM Chairman Roger B. Smith, Perot agreed to a $750-million buyout in 1986. He has subsequently established another computer-services company, Perot Systems.

But it is Perot's extracurricular exploits that have given him a larger-than-life image. In 1969, he chartered two jets and tried to deliver 26 tons of food and Christmas packages to U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam. He was rebuffed, but maintains that the increased focus on the POWs led to improved treatment. He remains outspoken on the MIA issue.

In 1979, he organized a private force to rescue two of his employees from an Iranian jail--a feat celebrated in the book and television miniseries, "On Wings of Eagles." In 1983, he put up $2 million and spearheaded a successful drive for educational reform in Texas.

Perot, who lives in Dallas, recently sat down for a talk in The Times' Washington bureau. He and his wife, Margot, have five children and four grandchildren.

In his twangy drawl, Perot quoted Alexis de Tocqueville, church hymns and Thomas Jefferson. He warned that the federal deficit--forecast to balloon from $3.2 trillion to $12 trillion by the year 2000--will "wreck us--no ifs, ands or buts," if the current trend continues.

But, above all, he lamented the ascendancy of "the sound-bite guys"--politicians who would rather look good on television than level with the American people. Perot, at least, does not appear to suffer from such an affliction.

Question: In 1984, you spearheaded a drive to reform the education system in Texas. What was accomplished?

Answer: The basic purpose was to recover the school day for learning; create an environment in the classroom in which children could learn; to get back to a base curriculum and get rid of things like motorcycle riding for high-school credit, bicycle repair and bachelor living, and get back to basics. Our children rank at the bottom of the industrialized world in terms of academic achievement. We have the least-literate work force in the industrialized world. Our objective was to reshape the public schools so that our children could be competitive in the future. Any time you start to do that there's tremendous resistance, because in many cases our public schools are places of entertainment rather than places of learning.

In other cases, we have dumbed-down our public schools to the point where we have mathematics for the non-mathematician; English for the non-grammarian, and so on. So we had to have rigorous courses. Even our children's readers have been watered down. Compare your child's reader with McGuffey's Readers that were used on farms 100 years ago, when mothers taught their children.

Q: What did the reforms require?

A: We put in a core curriculum. You couldn't get a high-school diploma taking basket weaving. You had to learn the things you need to know to be successful at work and in business and in life. It was not all electives. The standards for the teachers were upgraded. Alternate certification, so that people who had not been to teachers' school could become certificated. You could teach at Harvard, but you couldn't teach in Texas schools unless you'd been to teachers' school. Smaller classroom sizes. On and on and on.

Q: What were the keys to getting that program approved?

A: We ran a statewide, grass-roots campaign. We convinced the people of Texas that this was essential to their children's future, and they insisted that the legislature pass the reform bill and made it clear to the legislature that they would pay the additional taxes to get it done. A great experience--talked to the people to find out their views. In every case, they were concerned about their children, concerned about their future, wanted them to be able to compete. Many of them in the small towns and rural areas were not focused on international competition. Once they understood it, they realized their children had to have the finest schools in the world, or they would not be competitive as adults.

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