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

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<i> Alan C. Miller covers Congress for The Times. He interviewed H. Ross Perot when the entrepreneur was visiting The Times' Washington bureau</i>

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.

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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?

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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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We’re particularly poor in mathematics. We had a 13-year-olds math test recently, and asked the children taking the tests worldwide, who are the greatest mathematicians in the world? Our children ranked themselves first; they finished last. The Koreans didn’t think they were very good; they finished first. That kind of sums up our country at a glance. We think we’re still the greatest, but the performance doesn’t bear it out.

Q: Based on your experience in Texas, where you spent $2 million of your own funds, you once said the educational system in the 50 states could be turned around for $100 million. Where would you start?

A. This is a state-by-state problem. It’s even a city-by-city problem. If I were briefing a group getting ready to do this, I would say when you’re spending billions of dollars, never forget that somebody is getting it. They’re good people, but they’re used to controlling how the pie is split. Self-interest runs the schools. So, when you start your program, have your first words be: The public schools exist solely for the benefit of the children. They do not exist for special interests.

Q: President Bush has vowed to be the education President. Has he been?

A: He hasn’t yet. All he does is hold periodic convocations, gets television time. The greatest thing he’s done is appoint Lamar Alexander (as secretary of education). I think they can put together a world-class program. The real test will be: Do they have direct access to him? If they have to go through the White House staff, forget it. If he will spend time working with them instead of reading to children in school to get television coverage, then we’ll be headed somewhere . . . He doesn’t spend any time on domestic issues. He doesn’t like domestic issues.

Why don’t our officials like to deal with domestic issues? They’re controversial. We’ll go halfway around the world, we can mesmerize the American people. If we come home, we’re dealing with something they know a little bit about. Run three polls, and your handlers come in and say, “My gosh, we’re getting controversial, let’s go back to the Middle East again.”

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Q: What does the U.S. have to do to become economically competitive again with Japan and Germany?

A: Build the best products in the world. If you don’t have the best products, you can’t force them on the world. You can’t force them on the American people. The first step is like the first step for an alcoholic. You’ve got to admit you’re drinking. We’ve got people who build third-rate products who won’t admit it. So stop fantasizing and admit you’ve got to fix it. Then, where does the problem typically originate? In design and engineering. Typically, you have poor design and poor engineering, because we are not market-sensitive. We design and engineer a product without asking the customer what he wants. Then you need world-class design and engineering techniques, and you need to work in a skunk-works environment, not a bureaucracy. You can do wild and wonderful creative things in a fraction of the time at a fraction of the money.

And get rid of all these bureaucratic research centers. You go back in research centers, electronic companies, car companies, you may find a guy with white rabbits. What does that have to do with making a better computer or a better car? . . . I want everybody working on the product. That’s what the stockholders’ money should be spent for. Build a tremendous sense of urgency to be the best. You can’t be the best if you don’t have that as a goal.

Start at the top. You explain to everybody, we’re out of the game. Right now, everybody’s spending their energy trying to limit imports, trying to play games here with PAC money. Sooner or later, you say, wait a minute, let’s just build the best washing machine, let’s just build the best car, let’s just go whip them head on with the best TV, etc. . . . The factory worker cannot take a third-rate product and turn it into a Stradivarius on the factory floor. All they do is put it together. We like to bash the factory worker for bad design and engineering. It’s a bad joke.

Q: What would you do to change our trade relationship with Japan?

A: It’s got to be a fair-trade relationship. We need to go through it line-by-line and make it fair. Japan is an ally and a friend. The Japanese are excellent businessmen. We are pussycats compared to them. They grew up in adversity, we grew up with the spoils of World War II and victory. We are soft, arrogant, complacent. They are hard. They out-trade us. They are a little embarrassed sometimes at how much they out-trade us.

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We need to stop sending people from Washington who don’t know how to negotiate, and send people who do know how to negotiate, to make fair, equitable deals. They will understand that we have got to keep our country strong, if for no other reason than to be a good buyer of their products. We can do a lot of exciting things together. We should not become enemies, we should not become adversaries. But we cannot let them vacuum this country out.

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