Bayou City

Texas Governor Mark White, Houstonian and Public Education Reformer, Dies at 77

Gov. Mark White left office in 1987, but continued to care about education for the rest of his life.
Gov. Mark White left office in 1987, but continued to care about education for the rest of his life. Photo by Chris Curry
Mark White, who fought to reform the public education system in Texas as the state's 43rd governor, died of a heart attack Saturday at his Houston home. He was 77.

White, a Democrat who served a single term from 1983 to 1987, was the most recent Texas governor from Houston. His brief tenure is remembered for the strides made to improve the educations of Texas public schoolchildren. Among other successes, White pushed the Legislature to adopt a 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio, to prevent overcrowded classrooms. Under his watch, Texas also introduced its first standardized testing standards.

More controversially, White pushed for a "no-pass, no-play" policy for student-athletes — meaning in football-crazed Texas, football players who were flunking a course had to ride the bench. The Houston Chronicle noted that White said in a 2009 interview that the policy was bad politics, but good for the kids who learned how an education is a more applicable life skill than throwing a spiral or catching a pass.

White continued to care about education long after he left office. In 2010, he was the subject of a Houston Press column on his fight to keep the Legislature from undoing many of his education reforms — including his hard-fought student-teacher ratio cap. In 2014, Houston ISD named an elementary school after White.

Born in Henderson, White was educated in Houston public schools before earning a bachelor's degree and later a law degree from Baylor University. He worked in private practice in Houston, and served as the attorney general and secretary of state before he was elected governor.

Curiously, White is survived by just two former governors — George W. Bush, who served two terms as president of the United States; and Rick Perry, the current Secretary of Energy.

Governor Greg Abbott on Sunday ordered flags to be flown at half-staff, and in a statement praised his predecessor for his devotion to educating children.

“Mark’s impact on Texas will not soon be forgotten, and his legacy will live on through all that he achieved as Governor," Abbott said. "Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences to Linda Gale White and family during this difficult time, and I ask that all Texans join us in praying for the White family as they mourn the passing of a devoted husband, father and public servant."
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Zach Despart is the managing editor of the Houston Press and oversees the news and music verticals.
Contact: Zach Despart