Some Texas teachers with long memories are still angry at Gov. Mark White for an insulting, one-time competency test that he was forced to enact to secure them a pay raise. But no Texas governor during the past two generations has come close to matching the educational legacy that White left behind after only four years in the governor’s office.
During White’s tenure, the Legislature in 1984 enacted House Bill 72, which made several lasting improvements – real reforms – in the public school system, most notably the 22-1 class size limit for grades K-4 and the “no pass, no play rule,” which requires students to maintain passing grades to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities.
White, you see, was more interested in school classrooms than school bathrooms.
Under the leadership of White and then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and Speaker Gib Lewis, the Legislature also increased state taxes and fees to boost public education funding by $4 billion. By the end of White’s term in January 1987, as R.G. Ratcliffe notes in the Texas Monthly article linked below, the state paid 67 percent of all public education costs in Texas, compared to a pitiful 38 percent now. School property taxes were much lower then too.
House Bill 72 also opened the door to standardized testing, which subsequently got out of hand under subsequent governors, beginning with George W. Bush.
The teacher competency test never should have happened, but White was forced to agree to it to secure a teacher pay raise from the Legislature. And he paid for it when teachers who had been a key factor in his 1982 election victory over Republican Bill Clements turned against him in his unsuccessful reelection bid in 1986.
More significant in White’s reelection loss, though, were plunging oil prices and a looming recession that drove a $1.6 billion deficit in the state budget during the campaign year. White was forced to call the Legislature into special session only weeks before Election Day and urge lawmakers to cut spending and raise taxes.
If they needed political cover, he said, “Blame me.”
The voters blamed him and returned Clements to the governor’s office. Even in the face of the worsening economy and budgetary picture, Clements had campaigned on a pledge to cut taxes, which he had to break within months after returning to Austin. The tax increase Clements signed in 1987 is still one of the largest in Texas history.
White was fond of quoting Sam Houston: “Do right and risk the consequences.” He did “right” for public education and other critical state needs and certainly suffered some consequences.
Wrong decisions also have consequences, such as the hits that educators and school children have suffered from recent election results.
The longer Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick remain in office, the more state funding of public schools continues to slip – 38 percent and dropping . And the more the education community – whether every educator realizes it or not — misses the kind of real commitment Mark White had to public education.