A fond farewell to Mark White

Texans got a reminder this weekend of what our state can do when we set our minds to it. News of former Governor Mark White’s death on Saturday brought back memories of our public education system before he took office in 1978,  a reminder of how resistant to change we are, even when change is for the good.

When White became governor in 1983, teacher salaries were abysmally low, worse than today by a long shot. School finance was tied almost entirely to unpredictable rises and falls of the oil industry, and White set out to do something about that by trying to attract new businesses to the state. That was the beginning of the eventual boom that brought high tech, among other enterprises, to our door. The push for new business took more than a decade to come to fruition, culminating in Ann Richards’ success in luring California companies to the Lone Star State in the 1990s.   

Why did it take so long to persuade businesses to locate in Texas with its near-perfect weather, low land prices and huge workforce? Education was a major part of the resistance. Executives and key employees didn’t want to move their families to a place where education was at the bottom of the heap. Thanks, but no thanks.

White faced an almost impossible task: Better schools couldn’t be had without more businesses to support them; more businesses couldn’t be had without better schools. He began by raising teacher salaries to attract more people to the profession. Teachers loved that and flocked to his support. What they didn’t love was the teacher-literacy test that was White’s trade-off for garnering legislative support for the payraise.

It wasn’t like the test required a Harvard Ph.D. for passing. Actually, it was rather basic, covering information that any teacher should know, and only a handful didn’t pass it. It set teachers on fire, however, and they set out to see that White was defeated in his second bid for governor. That was not our teachers’ finest hour, but people have short memories, and politics is a “What have you done for me today?” world.

White was also largely responsible for the “No-pass, No-play” rule, meaning athletes have to attend class regularly and maintain passing grades to play on Interscholastic League teams. That raised some ire as well, even though today it would be unthinkable to revert to an athletes-don’t-have-to-study attitude.

So Mark White lost to Bill Clements in 1987, and lost another bid for the governor’s seat in 1991. Most people never realized, never gave a second thought, to the part he played in improving our educational system and the eventual change in the Texas economy. That’s the story in politics. If you don’t crow to high heaven about your accomplishments, if you don’t try to destroy your opponent’s reputation with slurs and half truths, if you don’t exaggerate what’s possible and promise the moon, you’re likely to be in trouble.      

As we bid Governor White goodbye, it will be good to remember he was an unsung hero, as true heroes often are. The world became a little better for his being here, and that’s all that anyone can ask of themselves or anyone else. Maybe he knew that. I hope so.

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