The rich man behind the 65 percent idea

Published April 18, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - The 43-year-old man behind the education spending plan storming the nation is crashed out on a couch in the Florida Capitol.

Patrick Byrne is making his first visit to the Legislature. The 6-foot, 5-inch president of Overstock.com is stretched across a navy sofa in the darkened office of a second-term legislator from Palm Beach County.

Few in Florida know Byrne, the public face of a movement to steer 65 percent of dollars for school operations directly into classrooms. He's fought cancer three times and speaks five foreign languages. He's childless. He's not a Republican or a Democrat. He's registered as a Libertarian in Utah.

Even Florida's Republican leaders, who have been considering whether to attach their top education priorities to the 65 percent plan's popularity with voters, would not recognize the burly man who showed up recently in a wrinkled button-down and got in for an unscheduled visit with Gov. Jeb Bush.

"The eccentric millionaire who is behind the movement?" Byrne said, sitting up. "Tis I."

The 65 percent idea is undoubtedly popular. Poll after poll have shown that voters like the idea of requiring school systems to spend 65 percent of their operating budgets directly in the classroom. But in Tallahassee it's unclear what, if anything, lawmakers will do with the popular idea.

On Tuesday, the 65 percent plan lost some momentum when a Senate panel removed it from a constitutional amendment that would ensure the future of private school vouchers. For now, it remains attached to another constitutional amendment to water down the class size limits that voters approved four years ago. The House has linked 65 percent to both initiatives.

"I don't think it really had any legs to start out with," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who thinks the plan is dead in the upper chamber.

But with the most important 2 1/2 weeks remaining in the legislative session, it's too early to predict exactly how it will play out.

Byrne admits little knowledge of Florida politics. His entry into the state's education debate started a year and a half ago in his Salt Lake City apartment.

A mutual friend introduced Byrne to Tim Mooney, an Arizona Republican political consultant. For about a year, Mooney had been laying the framework for the 65 percent campaign.

Mooney and Byrne felt that education debates for too long have centered on how much money goes to schools. They wanted to talk about where the dollars are spent.

Byrne had the high profile and financial resources to transform the idea into a national movement. "I think the only way to fix the social ills that occupy much of America are by fixing education," said Byrne, who pledged $1-million to the 65 percent campaign. "If you care about any social issue, you start with education."

In a matter of months, they were sharing their idea over breakfast in Arizona with nationally syndicated columnist George Will of the Washington Post. Will wrote about Byrne:

"His idea - call it the 65 Percent Solution - is politically delicious because it unites parents, taxpayers and teachers, while, he hopes, sowing dissension in the ranks of the teachers unions, which he considers the principal institutional impediment to improving primary and secondary education."

In Florida, Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, read the column on the House floor, while legislators were debating some topic he can't recall. Its simple message resonated.

One year later, Byrne and Hasner are meeting in person for the first time in Hasner's Tallahassee office. They exchange chuckles about the dollar bill taped to Hasner's desk, with a blue line indicating the 65 percent mark.

Hasner, a public school graduate from Palm Beach County, brought 65 percent to Florida.

"This issue is far bigger than any individual. This is such a powerful message for education around the country," Hasner said. "Sixty-five percent has a life of its own."

First Class Education, the national organization Byrne and Mooney formed to promote the concept, says its polls show the 65 percent idea enjoying 78 percent support among Republicans and 81 percent among Democrats nationally. Eighty-nine percent of Hispanics and 96 percent of African Americans like it.

Florida is the only state that has linked the 65 percent campaign to other controversial initiatives.

First, Republican leaders attached it to a proposal that would loosen the class size caps that voters wrote into the state Constitution four years ago.

"We're using it with things to package them in a way that we think would be good policy and appeal to voters on the ballot," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chair of the House's Education Council.

But opposition to watering down class sizes remains strong in the Senate. It looks like a longshot to get the three-fifths vote needed in both chambers to make the ballot.

"It's still a heavy lift. It may well not happen, but I'm not going to be disappointed," said Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, the sponsor of the class size amendment in the Senate.

The national face of the 65 percent movement, Byrne is not one to shy away from a fight, public or private. He once pursued a career in professional boxing.

In his 20s, Byrne fought testicular cancer three times. His business plan for Overstock.com was turned down by 55 venture capitalists before he launched the company in 1999. Now national television ads are promoting the online outlet store, which sells everything from $25 sateen sheets to $750 Prada handbags.

Byrne, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University, also sees his company as a tool to fight world poverty. At Worldstock.com, he sells wares produced in developing counties at low prices, pledging to return a substantial share to the products' makers.

In Florida, 65 percent is dividing the education establishment, just as George Will and movement leaders predicted. Researchers call the proposal's merits into question. A fall 2005 analysis by Standard & Poor's, the credit rating company, found no consistent correlation between higher instructional spending and better student achievement.

Recently, the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University released a report on the 65 percent plan that notes, "it was developed in the hopes of producing political gains, not in the hopes of stimulating pedagogical improvements."

Still, Texas, Kansas and Georgia have approved the 65 percent idea, and Louisiana's Legislature recommended it to state education leaders. Seven states, including Florida, are actively considering it.

Byrne is surprised at how quickly it's taken off. "I never had any idea politics was so easy," he said.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.