Patrick Byrne's Voucher Comments Were Not Racist

In a recent debate on school vouchers, Patrick Byrne defended vouchers on the basis that they would likely help minority students in Utah in a very dramatic way. Leave it to those who oppose vouchers to contort the meaning of his statements and imply that he is a racist.

Question: What percentage of Utah minorities in public school never graduate from high school?

Answer: 40%. Vouchers can help this problem.

Rebuttal: You are a racist.

Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, and supporter of vouchers, made the point recently that failure to graduate from high school is nearly akin to a death sentence for most students who don't graduate. Here are his words:
Right now, 40 percent of Utah minorities are not graduating from high school. You may as well burn those kids. That's the end of their life. That's the end of their ability to achieve in this society if they do not get a high school education. You might as, just throw the kids away.
My interpretation of this statement is this: if you don't encourage alternative ways for youth to graduate from high school, to include vouchers, then you are in essence encouraging them to throw their lives away.

Being that (1) Byrne is in favor of vouchers, and (2) vouchers are a very likely avenue for graduation from high school for those--including minorities--who currently don't graduate, I'm reasonably confident that this is an accurate interpretation of Byrne's comments.

Byrne did not attempt to disparage minorities, but hopes, through vouchers, to do the opposite. Jeanetta Williams, of the NAACP, sees it differently. Williams seems bent on finding racism under every rock and behind every tree.
Jeanetta Williams, a voucher opponent and president of the NAACP's Salt Lake branch, said the videotaped comments shocked her and she believes Byrne meant that minorities who don't graduate should be burned or thrown away.

"Those were his words, not mine," she said.
Yes, but that was Williams' interpretation of those words, not Byrne's. Clearly Williams' interpretation is wrong. Did I mention that Jeanetta Williams is opposed to vouchers? She is.

Comments

  1. The man suggested that some people are no better than garbage, and then refused to apologize. As an opponent of Referendum 1, I'd like Patrick Byrne to speak on behalf the wealthy, anti-democratic private school voucher interests more often.

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  2. Hypocritical is the better word when describing Mr. Byrne.

    Shady is another.

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  3. Richard,

    It's one thing to have your mind made up on an issue. Then it's another thing to have your opinion change your perception of reality. You know as well as I do that Byrne's implication was that people who oppose vouchers are treating the 40% of Utah minorities as though their lives were trash. Now, you can disagree with him on whether you--as a voucher opponent--think that the lives of the 40% are trash, but you cannot truthfully claim that he said they were trash.

    Nate,

    I don't know much about Patrick Byrne, except that he created overstock.com, that he is rich because overstock has been wildly successful, that he supports vouchers, and that he has donated a ton of his own money to help children get better educations, including attending private schools.

    Would you mind giving more details about why he is hypocritical and shady, or is it just something you heard from someone?

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  4. Frank,

    I agree with you on (1) Byrne is in favor of voucers. I'll also agree with you that the only reason to interpret Byrne's comment as racist is to score political points. Byrne clearly didn't mean that he thinks minorities without degrees should be burned or discarded.

    The propensity of people involved in discussions of substantive issues to look for "gotcha" moments such as these is a real turn off for me. It would sure be nice if we could debate a topic on the issues without assuming the most evil motives of those we disagree with when they mis-speak in a high pressure public setting.

    On (2) you're treading on shaky ground. Do you have any evidence that vouchers are a better avenue for minorities than public schools? I know that the lack of positive results in other voucher markets doesn't guarantee that vouchers will fail here but we should still try to rely on verifiable facts when making assertions like Mr. Byrne did that vouchers are some sort of silver bullet for poor minority educational success.

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  5. Frank,
    I agree with you on the interpretation of Byrne's statement. It may have been a poor choice of words (the word "burn" certainly has a connotation associated with it) but he clearly wasn't being racist in context.

    I do however take exception with Byrne's subtle implication that those who are against vouchers are racist. I don't know anyone, pro or anti voucher, who doesn't want to help minority kids, or all kids for that matter, do better.

    I personally would like to see programs that specifically target those who really need the help. This voucher program is a waste of resources that could be more wisely spent to help children in both public and private schools who really need the help. IMHO, this voucher program is horrible public policy and will not accomplish the goals set forth publicly by its supporters (for example, increasing funding for public schools, helping low income families to afford the "choice" of private schools, lowering public school class sizes, saving taxpayers money, etc.) I do not believe that this bill has much, if any, redeeming value and it should not be upheld just so it can be "fixed". It is beyond fixing.

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  6. Frank, Patrick Byrne clearly said something that sounds bigoted. I'd be willing to accept that he didn't mean it that way-- if he apologized. Which would be the smart thing to do if he wants anything he says to be taken seriously.

    As part of his apology, Byrne could offer a list of famous high school drop-outs, including: former ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, newspaperman/novelist Pete Hamill, and Oscar-winning film directors Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino.

    Actors Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Russell Crowe, Jude Law, Kevin Bacon, Nicolas Cage (GED), Leonardo DiCaprio (GED), Colin Farrell, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Chris Rock (GED), Charlie Sheen, Christian Slater, Keifer Sutherland, Joe Pesci and Mark Wahlberg never graduated from high school.

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  7. Jeremy,

    I didn't mean that all minorities should go to private schools. I'm simply saying that it's better to have more choices. There are a lot of those 40% who, in a different setting, would be successful.

    Don,

    I agree with you that this voucher law could be better targeted at those who really need it. You're right that, to a certain point, this law (if it becomes so) would cost money to the public schools. That's why we all need to get on board and encourage more students to use vouchers, so that it indeed does save money to the state and the schools. I agree that this law needs work, but I think it can be polished in the next couple of sessions.

    Richard,

    It was, indeed a brash comment that Byrne made, but Jeanetta williams was simply trying to score, as Jeremy said, with a "gotcha" moment. I think it failed miserably.

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  8. The NAACP is one of the biggest obstacles that young black people face today. It is an organization that is continually trying to drag up the past and make the current generation victims of past injustices.

    I'm not sure if vouchers are the best solution, but they're a step in the right direction. Anything that adds competition and gives parents more choice is better than what we have, and will benefit all children, regardless of race or economic standing.

    While it is possible to excel in life without a high school graduation, it's definitely a lot harder to do so.

    I don't believe Mr Byrne said, nor intended to say that minorities were garbage or should be burnt. To read such into his comments is evidence that you have missed his point entirely.

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  9. Urban Koda,

    Just a quick follow-up on your NAACP comment, the Wall Street Journal recently posted an OpEd from a former NAACP board member bemoaning how out of touch and off track the NAACP is as an organization.

    Here is just a sample of his incriminating remarks:
    "The NAACP's rank-and-file also seems hell-bent on romanticizing the warped values and mindset of the obstinate subgroup of young blacks that Cora Daniels calls "ghettonation." There has been no general alarm issued, much less a call to arms, to save these very black youths from their patterns of illiteracy, welfare dependency, criminality and social dysfunction. Instead, while an entire generation of young blacks has been weaned on racial difference, racial rhetoric and racial chauvinism, the NAACP went silent."

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  10. If this is the case about the NAACP, then I wonder if we should feel sorry for Utah's Jeanetta Williams, who must feel like she has to go along (by making such statements as she made against Byrne) to get along?

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  11. Frank,
    Here's the deal with this voucher law, as I see it. It doesn't help all of those who really need the help to help themselves. That's what we want, right? We can encourage people to flee public schools all we want just so this bill doesn't become a fiscal nightmare, but why would those who don't need to leave choose to do so? There's no incentive for those who are being well-served by public schools to leave.

    Allow me to throw around some numbers, completely hypothetically, but in a way that seems reasonable to me. The LFA estimates that about 10% of Utah's population would qualify for the maximum voucher. Let's double that to 20% and say those are the people who can really be incentivized with money to switch. That leaves 80% who already should, or could, have the personal means to switch; yet only about 3% of them currently do so. One could infer then that 3% of the population that can afford to leave public schools do so because they are unhappy with public schools (I know this isn't the only reason people do not use public schools, but 3% would still be the maximum who do because they are unhappy in public schools, right?) If we apply that 3% who switch when money isn't a problem to the 20% who can't afford to choose a private school, that leaves .6% relative to the entire student population who could be incentivized to switch by money. All others would be unwilling to switch because there is financial disincentive to do so if they are already happy with their "free" public education.

    If we have .6% of the student population who really needs a private option for education but can't afford it, then I definitely think we should find a way to help them. So, let's take a look at the $3000 maximum voucher. I'm going to be conciliatory here and use a figure of $4000 for the average private school tuition. But let's be real and add $500 per year per student for other expenses that will be incurred by the parent to make the private school choice. That gives us a total cost for private school of $4500/year. If the maximum voucher is only $3000, then 1/3 of those who need to switch probably won't because they still can't afford it (based on the percent reduction in the cost of private schooling.) That leaves us with an actual switch rate of .4% relative to the entire student population.

    As has been shown over and over again, a .4% switch rate will end up costing State taxpayers tens of millions of dollars per year once this voucher program is fully implemented. Furthermore, it still leaves .2% of the students who need and deserve a better option without one. I say we kill this program by voting NO on Referendum 1 and come back with a way to really help all of those .6% who truly need and deserve it.

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  12. Don,

    Your numbers make a lot of sense. Even if the school I chose were to cost $4500, and even if I were to qualify for the $3000 voucher (which I don't think we would), that's still $7500 per year to educate my 5 kids.

    We could afford that, but it would take away most of our "fun money". It's hard for me to know whether our family would take advantage of the new voucher law (probably not), because our kids go to a fabulous K-12 charter school (American Leadership, Spanish Fork) where one car trip can take all 5 kids to school and where they are all thriving.

    I wonder if so many Utahns (and probably so many Americans in general) live so close to the financial edge that they wouldn' have even that much extra money to move their kids to private schools. And we have so many children (on average) in our Utah families that how do we pick and choose who goes to private and who doesn't.

    So...you're probably right about your switchers prognostication.

    But my concern is that if this referendum fails, UEA will be dancing on the grave of vouchers and vouchers will never again see the light of day in Utah (at least for a very long time). If I felt like the Kim Burninghams of Utah weren't so opposed to 'diluting the public school monopoly' (my words) I might not feel like this is vouchers' last chance in the state.

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  13. ...that's why I'm in favor of voting vouchers in now, and then fixing them, because fixing is what they need.

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  14. Okay then, what would you do to fix this voucher program?

    What would you do to make it so that it truly helped all of those who really need it? What would you do to make it so that it wouldn't cost Utah taxpayers tens of millions of dollars per year just to subsidize a bunch of private school students who don't need it? Have you talked to any legislators about your concerns with this program? Have they shown any willingness to address such things?

    I'm sorry, but I just don't have a lot of faith in our Legislature. I think there is absolutely no way that if Referendum 1 is upheld that this program will be changed in any meaningful way. IMHO, it's just as likely that they'll end up making it worse.

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  15. I am an African American 38 year old woman living in Detroit, MI and I heard about Mr. Byrne's comments from a local radio station while driving home from work this afternoon. I decided to google the exact comments made by Mr. Byrne's before passing judgement. And as I read Mr. Byrne's comments I would have to say the I understand the context in which he made the comment. I cannot comment on the vouchers in Utah since i do not live there but I can comment on the importance of at least a high school education. As a matter of fact I have made similar comments myself among my peer group and coworkers. I may not have said specifically "trash or burn" but the meaning of what I've said in the past was very similar. Economically times are challenging for those of us with college educations and especially hard those who have less than a high school education. Here in Detroit the cushion that the Big 3 used to provide for individuals out of high school is over. So what are the options for people who have little or no education? It can be down right impossible to take care for yourself let alone a family without a high school education on some type of continuing education. That's being honest. I think that Mr. Bryne's comments are being looked as racist by people of color because there is such racial tension in the country today due to incidents like the one in Jena, LA and countless other racial incidents around the country now. And in those cases we are warranted in our outrage. But in my opinion this is not one of those cases. I have no idea what is in Mr. Byrne's heart or how he feels personally about minorities but if I only looked at his comments in this incident I would have to agree with him. Although most people of color would not have used his exact words but if they were honest with themselves they would have to agree that life for us without at least a high school education would be meek at best. That is why most of our parents stress so strongly that we further our education, because without and education you have very little options in life. An education at least gives you a fighting chance!

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  16. Mashley,

    Thanks for your insights.

    Does Detroit offer vouchers? I understand that Milwaukee uses them, but I don't know how well they have been found to help minorities in practice. Are you aware, or from your experience, do they help as I have suggested in my article that they might?

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  17. An interesting article popped up today. Apparently 12 percent of U.S. high schools are so-called "dropout factories" with graduation rates of 60 percent or less. Utah is the only state without a dropout factory.

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  18. Raymond Takashi Swenson10/31/2007 01:25:00 PM

    Anyone who can actually understand what they read would know that Mr. Byrne was simply emphasizing the importance of a high school education in ensuring that students become self-supporting adults. You can hear similar sentiments from Bill Cosby (who has also been criticized by people who claim to be spokesmen for black Americans). That should be a neutral statement that is supported by both voucher and anti-voucher advocates.

    The NAACP has become the black organizing arm of the Democratic Party, and it is required to support the union organizing arm of the Democratic Party, AKA the National Education Association, no matter how much damage the NEA's policies favor the financial interests of teachers and the union itself over the children they are supposed to be teaching. The notion that vouchers will create racial segregation is laughable. How many minority faces do you see in the high schools that serve the expensive East Bench neighborhoods? The new immigrants and the poor are concentrated in certain communities, and the high schools serving them are where the minority students are concentrated. On the other hand, parochial schools in Utah are primarily Catholic and serve a large part of the Hispanic community, so are MORE racially integrated than many Utah public schools.

    Private schools as any business in the US must obey the Civil Rights Act, since they are selling a service to the general public, just like a hotel or restaurant or public transport. Private schools cannot legally discriminate on the basis of race. The claim that they will somehow do so in defiance of Federal and state law, with the threat of civil enforcement and revocation of business licenses and p[rivate lawsuits, is silly. If a Utah parent wants his child to attend a predominantly white school, he just needs to move into a neighborhood higher up the Wasatch Mountains.

    The irrational accusations of racism are a mark of desperation. They depend for their effectiveness on the apparent inability of Utah's public schools to teach logical thought.

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  19. I like your point about desperation. I have given up listening to NAACP because of their tactics, and in the process, they may have let fallen on my deaf ears something that I would otherwise have agreed with.

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