In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we discuss school reform and the struggle to finance public education in Texas in the 1980s and the 1990s.
After a tentative start, House Speaker Gib Lewis made his mark on state government as Democratic Gov. Mark White called for teacher pay hikes. Lewis said he would agree to raises, but only if they were tied to education reform. Mark White had promised [when he was elected governor that] school teachers would get a raise. And so he came over to my office and said, “Here’s what I want” . . . and I said, “Mark, I’ll tell you what. Number one, to do that, you’re going to have to have a tax increase. And before you have a tax increase for school teachers, you’d better sit back and get some better quality education.”
"What had happened . . . I had gone through about four [receptionists] who couldn’t spell, or you couldn’t read what they’d written . . . These were recent products of the Texas educational system. And I said, 'We’re going to have to do something to teach these kids how to read and write and do arithmetic.' . . . I said, 'I think I had a better education when I was in the sixth grade than some of these kids who are getting out of high school . . . I’m going to tell you, you’re not going to get me to sign off on it until we have a complete overhaul of our education system.'
. . . We got Ross Perot to head it up, which was great, because that gave him the visibility he wanted . . . I think he did a great service to Texas by taking the time and energy that he took . . . and I think the recommendations of the committee turned out to be good."
When Lewis, Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and White began mulling school reform, Texas ranked 30th in the nation in teacher pay and 49th in expenditure per pupil. Texas students also ranked near the bottom nationally in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores (a type of college entrance exam) and 42nd in percentage of high school graduates attending college.
White, Hobby and Lewis impaneled a citizen’s committee headed by the eccentric billionaire Perot, later to run as a third party presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996. Examining education from top to bottom for a year starting in 1983, the committee sought to reverse the perceived lax school standards of the 1960s and 1970s and presented a package of reforms known collectively as House Bill 72, changes in Texas education as significant as the earlier Gilmer-Aikin laws. The recommendations, costing a total of $4.2 billion, were approved by the Legislature in a 30-day special session on July 3, 1984.
The reforms attempted equalization of state funding formulas for school districts, with the 151 poorest districts receiving a 44 percent per capita funding increase while the 151 richest saw state funding cut by 25 percent. The bill raised teachers’ salaries, and instituted a career ladder for educators based on years of service (though this was not funded by the state.) The new law also required teachers take so-called competency tests and meet tighter certification standards. The state would fund pre-kindergarten for economically disadvantaged children and free summer school for English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students and required schools to provide tutorials for failing students.
Undergraduate degrees in education at state colleges and universities were replaced by degrees in specific subject areas like history or science. Standardized tests were also implemented to measure school performance. The most controversial aspect of the bill beside the teacher competency tests, however, became the bill’s “no-pass, no play” requirement. The Legislature raised the minimum passing grade to 70 and students failing a class would become ineligible for extracurricular activities, including sports, unless the next six weeks grade report showed passing marks.
That the Legislature implemented such major changes in a mere month, as opposed to the marathon wrangling over school funding that would happen in the early 1990s and at the start of the 21st century, can be credited to the cohesion of the top leadership, many observers of the 1984 education special session agree. "We had a consensus among the leadership on what direction we were going to take on the major issues," said Bill Haley, who led the House Public Education Committee and sponsored the Perot reforms in the lower House.
"One thing the Perot committee did do right was we covered this whole state and we worked hard," added Carl Parker, the Senate sponsor of the Perot reforms in 1984. "We listened to everybody who had an ax to grind about education. We had a plan when we got there (for the session)," he said. Many also credit Ross Perot, who spent a great deal of his own money to promote the reforms, hiring his own political consultants to ensure public support.
“Ross Perot of course is an absolute tornado of energy,” said political columnist Molly Ivins. “And he swept around the state . . . and . . . among other things, went all over the state preaching to businessmen and business groups and chambers of commerce. “Look y’all, if we don't improve the public schools, y’all aren't going to have workers who are worth anything. Your businesses will go to pot.” And of course it's a perfectly legitimate argument and nobody can make it . . . with more vigor than H. Ross.”
Opposition to the reforms remained fierce. The most conservative Republicans in the Texas House, such as Tom DeLay (later elected to majority leader of the U.S. House) and Tom Craddick (later elected Texas House speaker) voted against the Perot reforms and the taxes to pay for them. Parents of public school athletes and coaches organized campaigns to reverse no-pass, no-play. Other parents objected to high-stakes standardized testing while teachers protested the competency tests and the increased bureaucracy required by the Legislation in order to monitor school progress.
The reforms did move teacher salaries upward so Texas matched the average nationwide for the first time, but teacher resentment remained deep. The Texas State Teachers Association, one of the largest organizations for educators in the state, refused to endorse White in 1986 as it had in 1982. Many teachers ended up staying home when White faced former Governor Bill Clements in a rematch in November 1986.
By then, oil prices, which had fueled an economic boom in the state in the early 1980s, had collapsed from $35 a barrel to $10, requiring White to call a special session of the Legislature to close a $2 billion state deficit by revoking state employee pay raises and raising taxes just months before the state ballot. Clements returned to the governor’s mansion with 53 percent of the vote, although many political commentators noted that his margin over White was surprisingly small given the awful circumstances surrounding the incumbent.
The oil bust combined with a real estate market collapse and the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s placed state government in desperate straits. These crises made a mockery of House Bill 72’s attempts to equalize desperately uneven school spending across the state. The state’s school funding system had already faced a long legal challenge by parents living in poor school districts beginning in the late 1960s.
On May 16, 1968, 400 students had walked out of predominantly Mexican American Edgewood High School in San Antonio to protest poor funding and inadequate facilities. Edgewood schools lacked up-to-date textbooks, chalk and in some cases toilet paper. Parental protest led the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) to challenge the constitutionality of school funding in the Rodríguez v. San Antonio ISD case, filed in federal court.
MALDEF lawyers demonstrated that Alamo Heights, San Antonio’s richest district, could raise $413 per capita while the Edgewood district could only levy $37 per pupil, an 11-1 ratio. On March 21, 1973, the United State Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that Texas’ financing system did not violate the United States Constitution and that funding inequities would have to be resolved by the state of Texas. The battle moved to the state courts in 1984 with the Edgewood ISD v. Kirby case. This time MALDEF lawyers argued that unequal school funding violated the provision of the Texas Constitution requiring the state to provide an “efficient and free school system.”
Following five years of wrangling, the case finally reached the state supreme court, which in October 1989 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Funding inequity had only worsened since the United States Supreme Court dismissed Rodríguez v. San Antonio. The Texas Supreme Court noted that Alamo Heights held property wealth of $570,109 per student compared to $38,854 in Edgewood, a 15-1 ratio. The court ordered the state Legislature to implement a fair system of funding by 1991.
Gov. Bill Clements ended up calling three separate special sessions to consider school finance. He provided the sticking point by insisting that any increase in funding for poor districts be paired with a reduction of state regulations and standards for public schools. A fourth special session finally produced a bill that raised school spending by $528 million. An increase in cigarette taxes and a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax provided the revenues. This legislation did not, however, address the inequities created by Texas’ reliance on property taxes. Legal challenges to the finance system continued in the courts.
In 1991, the state supreme court ruled that the new school-funding scheme also failed to meet Constitutional requirements. Once again, it gave the Legislature the summer to come up with an equitable funding plan or face a court takeover of the school system. The Legislature developed a plan that shifted tax funds from high-wealth school districts to poorer ones. In response, the courts extended the Legislative deadline. In a 1992 special session, Republicans killed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have reduced administrative costs by consolidating school districts while in 1993 Texas voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have equalized school funding to a limited degree.
With one month left before a court takeover of state schools, the Legislature passed a “Robin Hood” law that took “surplus money” from the state’s 100 richest school districts and distributed it to poorer districts throughout the state. The state Supreme Court upheld this approach in 1995, but more and more school districts would encounter another crisis when they no longer qualified as poor districts and reached the Legislature’s cap of $1.50 per $100 property valuation. As enrollments expanded and the cost of food, fuel, health insurance and other necessary expenditures increased, more districts would be left with slashing programs, cutting staff, and delaying purchases as the only options available to balance budgets.
Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations," edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011. He is currently coauthor of a new edition of "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story."