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Ross Perot Pushed Texas To Put Education Ahead Of Football

LEE High School football players warm up before their first home game of the season Sept. 8, 2018.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
LEE High School football players warm up before their first home game of the season Sept. 8, 2018.

Part of Texas billionaire Ross Perot’s legacy is a lasting influence on the state’s education policy. The two-time independent presidential candidate died Tuesday morning at age 89.

Perot took on Friday night lights as chair of a state education task force in 1984, leading to the passage of a major school reform bill that shaped Texas education for the past 35 years.

One of the task force’s more controversial recommendations was a policy called no-pass, no-play that barred students from extracurriculars — including football — if they failed a class.

At one public hearing, Perot reportedly said, “If the people of Texas want Friday night entertainment instead of education, let’s find out about it.”

In addition to no-pass, no-play, the law passed in the summer of 1984 set maximum class sizes, established preschool for eligible 4-year-olds and added a testing component to high school graduation requirements.

Charles Breithaupt, the executive director of the University Interscholastic League, was a high school basketball coach at the time.

“He was a villain to coaches, I can just tell you. And to a lot of school superintendents because he was attacking the system that had been in place for at that time about 75 years and they didn’t want to change. But we did change,” Breithaupt said. “The fact that he attacked football, which everyone considered the sacred cow — no one would ever touch football in Texas — but he did. He tackled football, pun not intended.”

The policy sparked outrage and lawsuits from parents and coaches, but ultimately prevailed.

Breithaupt remembers the businessman shaking a rubber chicken at a press conference to emphasize the point that students in Future Farmers of America were missing too many days of school to show chickens. Another part of the policy limited how the number of days of school students could miss.

Todd Howey, the athletic director for the San Antonio Independent School District, estimates that almost 1,000 football players in the San Antonio region lost their eligibility in the fall of 1984, the first year the law went into effect.

“I don’t know the specifics, but more than likely those kids were probably from high-poverty schools. Most of them were. So it didn’t play well,” Howey said.  

Howey said at first iteration of the law, which barred students from playing games or going to practice for six weeks, had the unintended side effect of causing students to drop out of school. But he’s a supporter of the revised law passed in 1995, which gives students a chance to return to competition in three weeks if they bring their grades up, and allows them to keep going to practice.

“The premise is right, and it’s a good thing to have, and I think how we have it now is perfect. But when you kick at kid out of athletics and you say you can’t be around your teams anymore, you can’t be around your coaches anymore, you’re supposed to go home and study — well that’s not going to happen,” Howey said.

Breithaupt said he lost three starters in the middle of district play when he was a coach in Beaumont the first season under the policy.

“It ruined our season,” Breithaupt said. “It came to light — we better take this seriously. We better start having study halls and doing more to help our kids. Not that coaches weren’t doing that already, but we had a little wiggle room before.”

Despite the opposition — and ruined seasons — Howey and Breithaupt said the policy shifted expectations for the better over time.

“I don’t think any school person, I being one of them, wanted to be told that what we were doing was not sufficient,” Breithaupt said. “But as you took a hard look at it, sometimes our rules were the problem.”

Instead of putting football or other extracurriculars first, Howey said the policy now gives coaches a tool to motivate their students to learn.

“Academics is the most important thing, but those kids don’t get up in the morning excited about going to math class,” Howey said. “They’re excited about being around their friends, you know playing football, practicing football or going to band.”

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille

An earlier version of this story misspelled Todd Howey's last name.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@TPR.org and on Twitter at @cmpcamille. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.