Former Texas governor dies at 77

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Former Texas Gov. Mark White, a Democrat who championed public education reforms that included the landmark “no-pass, no-play” policy for high school athletes, has died. He was 77.

The former governor, who fought kidney cancer for years, died Saturday in Houston shortly after waking up and feeling uncomfortable, according to his wife, Linda Gale White, and his son Andrew White.

Governor from 1983 until 1987, White was Texas’ attorney general when he defeated Gov. Bill Clements, Texas’ first Republican governor since Reconstruction who spent a then-record $13 million on his re-election campaign. Clements beat White four years later.

White’s education reforms included pay raises and competency tests for teachers, class size limits for elementary schools and the creation of the state’s high school basic skills graduation test. White also pushed through a $4 billion tax hike for schools and highways.

White appointed Dallas billionaire Ross Perot to lead a special panel on education that developed some of the key changes. The no-pass, no-play initiative, which barred students from playing school sports if they were failing a class, was a politically tricky and unpopular move in a state crazy about its high school football. It had to survive a challenge in the state Supreme Court.

White underestimated the passionate resistance to no-pass, no-play that sparked protests and a few threats of violence.

“It was horrible,” White said. “I misread the intensity of it until I saw it for myself in West Texas. My security people thought I should go by myself: ‘Here’s my gun. You go.'”

A state district judge blocked the provision before the state Supreme Court ruled it was a legitimate function of the state’s goal to provide quality education. But White still had to defend the rule during his losing campaign in 1986.

“Leave it alone,” he implored state lawmakers as he left office in 1987. “Let’s be real: Anyone who can study a playbook can study a textbook. Americans didn’t get to the moon on a quarterback sneak.”

Lawmakers heeded his advice — and no-pass, no play remains the rule in Texas high school sports.

“He cared about Texas deeply,” Andrew White, one of the former governor’s three children, said Saturday. “He realized that this wasn’t about getting re-elected. This wasn’t about being popular. This was about making Texas a better place.”

White also pushed Texas to move further from its agricultural roots and ties to the oil economy by trying to attract new industries. During his term, dropping oil prices worldwide shook the state’s economy.

White considered himself the symbolic leader of new breed of Texan who embraced the emerging era of high technology and warned the state’s residents they would not find their future at the bottom of an oil well.