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Posted: 8:25 PM- The NAACP is demanding a public apology from Overstock.com founder and CEO Patrick Byrne for saying minority students who do not graduate from high school might as well be burned or thrown away.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Salt Lake City chapter leaders and other community members organized a news conference Friday to call for Byrne to apologize and to refrain from using terms such as "burn" when referring to kids.
Byrne didn't apologize Friday. He said he said nothing wrong and his comment is being distorted.
"It's worse than a cheap shot. It's a lie. Somebody is trying to create the implication I said the exact opposite of what I said in that answer," Byrne said.
Byrne was part of a school voucher debate earlier this month in Provo when he made the comment. He was talking about the failure of public schools when it comes to the graduation rate of minority students, and the critical link between education and success in life. A clip of the debate with Byrne's comment was posted on the Web site YouTube.
Jeanetta Williams, NAACP Salt Lake branch president, said she's upset that Byrne would single out minority kids when there are white students who also do not graduate from high school.
"It's saying to them, 'If you can not achieve . . . then you have no worth in society," she said later in an interview.
Williams said there are many people who don't have a high school diploma who take up a trade and support their families. She also said the word "burn" has a negative historical perspective when she thinks of blacks who were lynched for the color of their skin.
"If he misspoke about not meaning what he said . . . then he shouldn't have any hindrances in making a public apology," she said.
Byrne, a leading voucher advocate who has bankrolled much of the pro-voucher campaign, said the national NAACP says its top issue is education equality and suspects the Utah chapter has not even seen the full tape.
"I'm saying we should not be throwing out kids. We should not be discarding kids. I'm saying the current system does," Byrne said. "Forty-two percent of minority kids in Utah don't graduate. That is a calamity. The people who are saying, 'That's OK, let's not change the system,' they are saying we might as well throw out those kids. Those kids don't matter."
Byrne said he has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to an organization, Children First Utah, which provides private school scholarships, many of them to minority families.
Leah Barker, who runs the organization and is also a proponent of Utah's voucher movement, said that two years ago, a minority scholarship recipient at an event was in tears telling of how she had raised her grade-point average from 1.1 to 3.86 and was about to graduate.
Byrne stood up and pledged $500,000 to match contributions to the scholarship fund.
Byrne has said he has seen parents make extraordinary sacrifices to pay tuition for their children to attend private school.
"You meet these mothers, Hispanic and African American mothers, they work two jobs, they scrub toilets on the weekend at Taco Bell . . . because they know the only way to break the cycle is to get their kid educated," Byrne said.
Vouchers, he said, would make it easier for those families.