Bill Hobby on the 1984 Education Reform Battle

  • 4Comments

[Editor's note: How Things Really Work: Lessons from a Life in Politics, by former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby with Saralee Tiede, is being published this month by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas. In this excerpt — the second of three that the Tribune will run — Hobby writes about the 1984 fight to reform public education in Texas and the fallout of teacher testing, standardized student testing, and the idea that nearly derailed the whole effort: No Pass, No Play.]

You need a good sense of irony to enjoy politics. Consider this: The most extensive education reform bill in Texas became law because Gov. Mark White had promised a teacher pay raise and didn’t have the money to pay for it. But after he gave teachers the pay raise he had promised — and a tax bill to pay for it — they campaigned against him, and he was defeated for reelection.

White was state attorney general when he beat Republican Gov. Bill Clements in 1982. It was a banner election year for Democrats. U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and I teamed up to finance a massive get-out-the-vote effort that was credited with electing not only White but a whole slate of promising Democrats, including state Treasurer Ann Richards.

White promised a number of things during his campaign, including a teacher pay raise. He wanted a two-year 24 percent increase but no new taxes. Even before the Legislature came into session, I told Mark that there couldn’t be a teacher pay raise without new taxes. In fact, the 1983 session ended with neither. The Senate was willing to support a pay raise and the tax increase it would take to pay for it, but the House, which has to originate tax bills, was opposed, and White was not at all excited about endorsing a tax bill.

It’s possible that the idea for the Select Committee on Public Education came from Comptroller Bob Bullock, who suggested a study of school finance. Speaker Gib Lewis, who balked at the teacher pay raise, liked that idea. But White expanded that idea into a thorough study of the state education system. He found exactly the right man to head it: Ross Perot. Understand that, in 1983, Perot had not yet run for president twice or become a not-entirely-complimentary household word. He was still just a Dallas billionaire, a Republican and a successful entrepreneur who had created Electronic Data Systems.

As head of the Select Committee, Perot’s charge was to write a plan to insure that Texas schools were up to the demands of a technology-based economy. He was expected to tackle not just teacher pay but merit pay, plus teacher competence, curriculum, classroom discipline, equitable finance, school finance, the dropout rate, and more. And when that was done, he needed to tell us how to find the money to pay for everything.

I served on the committee, and I appointed some distinguished educators, Comptroller Bob Bullock, and state Sen. Carl Parker, who, as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, would have to carry the legislation the committee recommended.

The committee did a superb job. Select committees have huge advantages in paving the way for controversial bills — they study issues, build support coalitions, ferret out the opposition, and work out some of the rough spots.

Perot was a standout leader. His charge was broad, and he made it broader. He was fearless, and he was quotable. He was a technology leader, and he knew that Texas’s oil and gas prosperity was fading fast. The state needed to spend more on the minds of its people.

He took on high school athletics hammer and tongs: “If the people of Texas want Friday night entertainment instead of education, let’s find out about it,” he said at a public hearing in Austin. Parker backed him up. He told the principals that the Legislature “is scratching to put the funds together to keep our school system from being declared unconstitutional, and you’re out there saying, ‘Keep sending that state money because we need to spend our local money on sixteen football coaches and matching shirts for them so we can be the big boy in the district.’”

Perot said there were little schools with sixty teachers and twelve coaches. When a principal objected that such a situation was “rare,” Perot retorted, “So is a one-legged tap-dancer, but it happens.”

The committee came in with a list of recommendations that covered the waterfront — school organization and management, electing the State Board of Education, state funding, alternative schools and discipline management, teacher education and testing, class sizes, the curriculum, textbooks, vocational and special education, and, of course, extracurricular activities. Mark White, to his everlasting credit, strongly supported its recommendations.

The special session of 1984 began on June 4. That gave us thirty days to both reform education and pass a tax bill. Hardly anyone thought we could do it, much less produce a bill that Milton Goldberg, chairman of the national education task force that produced the “Nation at Risk” report, called the “hallmark for the nation.”

Teachers groups, principals groups, coaches, school district coalitions — you name it — were opposed. It was a miracle of sorts that all of us from the governor on down could pull together so effectively.

Perot set the stage and then left town. But he had hired several adroit lobbyists to represent the committee — Rusty Kelley, Jack Wheeler and his very capable attorney Tom Luce were on hand day and night.

I had the easy job. The Senate at that time was remarkably united, with a substantial Democratic majority and seasoned leaders like Parker, Ray Farabee and Kent Caperton. I referred the bill to the Committee of the Whole Senate, a strategy well suited to complicated issues in short, single-issue special sessions when things have to move fast. I had done the same with redistricting in 1981.

In the House, Gib Lewis had a harder job. He had 150 members, and legislators don’t like voting against their school districts and they don’t like voting for tax bills. “No Pass, No Play” was hard enough, but that was resolved in a sensible fashion by requiring students to get a passing grade on all their courses in each six-week period in order to be eligible to play sports or to participate in other extracurricular activities.

The issue that threatened to derail the train was the teacher competency test. (I took the test — it was about junior high level.) The four teachers groups in the state first signed on to the bill, but three of them came off the train, supposedly over the pay raise mechanism. One of them, the Texas State Teachers Association, held a news conference and the president-elect, Becky Brooks, said, “Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.”

Bear in mind that the bill was adding $3 billion to public education and increasing teacher salaries substantially. Brooks took issue because that wasn’t enough money to completely fund the career ladder created by the bill.

Days before the clock was going to run out on the session, I called the teachers groups into my office and asked for an apology. They declined. I told them to leave and not come back, ever. “Don’t forget your briefcase,” I told one of them. State Sen. John Montford, who was at the meeting, described it as “like the Alamo, but without the blood.” Betty King, the secretary of the Senate, remembered hearing me in her office down the hall. “We could hear him shout in our offices — scared us to death. Never before or since have I heard him explode that way,” she said.

The bill passed fairly easily in the Senate, but only after a fourteen-hour session in the House. Speaker Lewis demonstrated firm leadership with every blow of his gavel.

That left a tax bill, a $4.8 billion tax bill, the first in thirteen years and the largest in state history at that time. It included money for education reform as well as highway improvements.

It took an eleventh-hour crisis, all-night meetings, and the threat of a last-minute filibuster to finally pass the bill. About twenty-four hours before the session would end, the House unanimously rejected the bill the Senate had passed. The bill the House sent us taxed a number of businesses, advertising, repairs, amusements, and other services. The Senate substituted a broader-based solution — a one-fourth cent increase in the sales tax.

Not only did the House reject this tax bill, it refused to create a conference committee to resolve differences. The Speaker and I created a “non-conference committee” that would hold “non-meetings.” White called people into his office, and we worked nearly all night to find something acceptable to both sides. In the end we reduced the sales tax to one-eighth of a cent and extended the sales tax to newspapers. And I was a lifelong newspaperman!

Then state Sen. John Leedom, a Republican, threatened to filibuster it to death. I finally found a way to dissuade him by finding $32 million in surplus at the Texas Department of Corrections, which allowed us to eliminate the proposed tax on car and truck repairs. There was applause in both houses when the tax bill passed.

House Bill 72, the education reform bill, was historic legislation. But in some respects it didn’t move the ball very far. In the end, Texas still had the shortest school year of all the states, and our students spent fewer hours in class than students in other states.

But that bill set statewide standards — uniform testing in the third, sixth, and twelfth grades. It tested teachers and beefed up teacher education. “No Pass, No Play” set academic requirements for students who wanted to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities.

Remarkably, most of the reforms initiated in House Bill 72 persist to this day. The teacher test was never repeated, but the statewide student tests are a hallmark of Texas education. They also served as the model for President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” federal legislation.

Limits on class size are still in effect, with only twenty-two children permitted in kindergarten through fourth grade classes. Teachers will argue that the limits have been watered down with a generous waiver policy granted by the Texas Education Agency, but the law remains unchanged.

The state-funded preschool classes that we started for four-year-olds were extended to three-year-olds in the 1989–1990 session. This program is still available now, as it was then, to those who are economically disadvantaged or non-English speaking. However, school districts are not required to offer pre-kindergarten to three-year-olds, and they are exempt from offering pre-kindergarten to four-year-olds if fewer than fifteen children qualify.

The extraordinary thing is that “No Pass, No Play,” one of the most contentious provisions of House Bill 72, continues to exist in Texas law and practice. There were early attempts to unravel it in the legislative sessions after 1984, but, by and large, school districts learned to live with it. The world did not end, and Friday night football did not perish from the earth.

In fact, in 2007 the Legislature closed a loophole in the law that allowed school districts to exempt courses from those included in the “No Pass, No Play” requirement. A Dallas Morning News investigation had discovered that some districts were exempting elective and vocational courses such as professional baking, jewelry-making, photography, choir, and theatre production from “No Pass, No Play.” The 2007 bill limited exemptions to advanced placement and honors courses in core subjects such as mathematics and English.

In 2009, Austin American-Statesman political columnist Gardner Selby called the special session of 1984 one of “life-changing significance.” I’d suggest no governor since has called such a meaningful session, though there might be opportunities ahead to act in realms where Texas lags and leaders get a firm bead on what to do,” he wrote.

The praise came too late for Mark White. His education reforms were popular, but the tax increase wasn’t. To make matters worse, in 1986 the state’s economy was going south in a hurry. The Texas State Teachers Association opposed him. Bill Clements, who got a drubbing from White in 1982, resurfaced with deep pockets and a yen for revenge. White lost the election.

Gov. White’s education reforms have had a lasting impact on Texas public education. But teachers, who were among the major beneficiaries of those reforms, made it their mission to defeat the man responsible. They succeeded.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.