Perot School-Reform Role Illustrates Style

BEFORE announcing that he will take time off to study the issues, undeclared presidential candidate Ross Perot this week addressed one issue he should know well - school reform.

The Dallas billionaire left an audience of money managers appreciatively agape with appalling data, wry quips, and down-home common sense like "the sooner we start, the sooner we're finished." In the same way, as chairman of a governor's task force, Mr. Perot sold a school-reform package to the Texas Legislature in the mid-1980s.

Not once in Monday's speech, however, did Perot claim that his reforms had improved the state's schools. In fact, he was silent on their benefits. Observers say there weren't many. Mark White, the governor who appointed Perot, says the reforms "got the boat turned in the right direction. There's still a great deal of work that needs to be done."

Even gloomier is John Moore, chairman of the education department at Trinity University. "I can't see today - 1992 - that the schools have changed one iota," even though "99.5 percent of [Perot's] agenda passed," Dr. Moore says. "I don't see him as the savior."

Some of the reforms were even junked in a second round of reform in 1990. Perot's top-down mandates were replaced with site-based decisionmaking.

Annette Cootes, a spokeswoman for the Texas State Teachers Association, commends some of the earlier reforms like "no pass, no play" for athletes and early childhood education. But she ridicules others, like the idea that "all kids in every single school ought to be learning the same thing.... Not everybody learns at the same speed."

Ms. Cootes says the merit-pay system for teachers has been a disaster for lack of funding, causing teachers to hide their innovations from one another as they compete for pay-raise dollars.

Terral Smith, a former state legislator and a supporter of President Bush, says Perot's task force failed to solve a key issue: how to equalize funding between rich and poor school districts. "I'm not saying that anybody could do it," Mr. Smith says, "but if you're going to run for president of the United States, you ought to be able to point to [some political achievement] that's really tough."

But even those most skeptical about the reforms admire how hard Perot worked to bring them about. During that process, Moore was a constant sounding board for Perot's ideas. But a few years later, Perot declined Moore's invitation to speak on the topic, saying that the education issue was behind him and that he was now busy trying to straighten out General Motors Corporation. "He goes from one thing to the next and doesn't look back," Moore says.

Also missing from Monday's speech was any claim that, as president, he would make much difference on education, a matter for which states and local school districts, not Washington, are responsible.

The US Department of Education provides only 6 percent of the funding for the nation's public schools. That money is targeted to specific programs. Instead, Perot admitted: "We're going to finally solve this problem at the state and local level. You can do some at the national [level]."

If Perot were to have any effect on education, it would be through use of the "bully pulpit," Moore says. He has seen Perot whip audiences into an uproar with data showing that 25 percent of college seniors in Dallas don't know that Mexico borders Texas, or that 60 percent of adults in Texas who didn't finish high school have incomes below the poverty level.

In San Antonio, Perot stressed the need for parental involvement and individual responsibility: "Do you know who the commissioner of education in your state is? Do you know who the members of the state board are? Are they elected? Appointed? If they're elected, do you remember who you voted for? Do you know exactly how the school books are selected?"

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