State of Texas: Schools and the lasting legacy of Ross Perot

Texas Politics

Texans lost a legend of their own this week with the passing of billionaire businessman, philanthropist and one-time third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot.

Perot, 89, died Tuesday after a battle with leukemia.  Most remember him for his presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996.  But children in schools across Texas are still feeling Perot’s impact on the state’s education system.

For decades, sports and other extracurricular activities had slowly begun to take priority over academics for students and schools throughout Texas.  The divergence led the state to reevaluate its entire education system.

In 1984, then-Gov. Mark White appointed the Dallas businessman Perot to lead a study on what the state could do to bolster the public education system.

“Perot took a select committee and had hearings all over the state, so they let everybody talk,” explained Bob Garrett, Austin Bureau Chief for the Dallas Morning News. “They worked on this for months and he had a very sophisticated staff. He paid for a lot of the expenses himself.”

As a result of the study, Perot helped the Texas legislature pass a package of sweeping educational reforms included in House Bill 72. 

Among those measures was the Perot-orchestrated “No Pass, No Play” policy requiring students to have passing grades in order to play sports or participate in extra-curricular activities.

“That was a huge deal,” Garrett said. “You can practice (in your sport or activity) but if you were failing, originally you were suspended for six weeks–now it’s three weeks.”

The bill also raised taxes to increase the state’s education spending, provided Pre-K schooling for disadvantaged four-year-olds, and limited classroom size to 22 students from kindergarten until 4th grade.

Another lasting change was the requirement for students to pass basic skills tests before graduating from high school. Those tests were precursors to the current State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR tests.

Perot earned almost 19 percent of the vote in his run as an independent candidate for president. The Texan ran on a platform of reeling in spending and driving down the national debt.

“He drew from disgruntled sections of America from right, left, and center and there are some parallels with the later Tea Party movement and with Donald Trump,” Garrett said. 

He pointed to the fact that, as candidates, both Trump and Perot pledged to fix corruption in Washington and lambasted the exportation of jobs to “Mexico and other cheap labor countries.”

Garrett said that the ideas that drew volunteers and voters to Perot still have appeal today.

“Perot people, I mean generationally some of them have died, but I think in terms of the types of voters we see somewhat up for grabs and somewhat people without a party home,” Garrett said.

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