From school choice to election denial

Patrick Byrne has been back in the news. Remember him? If you’ve followed Indiana politics – especially education politics – for the past decade, you very well may.

Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com, has as a prominent election denier trying to cast doubt on the fact that Donald Trump lost in 2020. He was part of an “unhinged” White House meeting Dec. 18, 2020, where he and others reportedly urged Trump to fight harder to overturn the results.

More recently he has been headlining election-denial events around the country and espousing conspiracy theories. He told a gathering in Omaha that he has spent $20 million of his own money to show that voting machines were manipulated to influence the election. He said China plans to take over the United States by 2030.

Byrne has always gone for the big, facile idea. In 2005, he promoted the “65 percent solution,” the belief that America could solve its education problems by directing 65% of school spending to the classroom. Columnist George Will celebrated the idea. Byrne lobbied state legislators, and politicians got on board.

As Kevin Carey wrote at the time, the idea “makes sense for about five seconds.” It disregards the complexity of education policy and the diversity of schools and school systems. It ignores many of the support services required for schools to be effective.

In Indiana, however, the 65 percent solution sounded great to a new governor, Mitch Daniels. He got the legislature to pass a law requiring annual reports on how schools were allocating their spending, including what percentage went into instruction. The “Dollars to the Classroom” law is still on the books – although, from what I can tell, no one pays much attention to the reports.

Byrne’s contributions in Indiana didn’t stop with ideas. He also gave campaign money, including $250,000 to Daniels and $200,000 to Hoosiers for Economic Growth (now Hoosiers for Quality Education), which promotes school choice, including private school vouchers.

Byrne spent eight years as board chair of EdChoice, the Indianapolis-based pro-voucher organization started by the libertarian economist Milton Friedman. He stepped down in 2019, the same year he left Overstock.com after his affair with a Russian woman who tried to influence U.S. politics became public.

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