During a recent interview, Gov. Mark White discussed why he considers education his No. 1 priority, and how he sees last year's reform bill improving the state's schools. He played down concerns among business leaders and university officials about proposed cuts in the state's higher education budget, and challenged the notion held by some that the state's young have-nots would be left behind in an increasingly elitist education system.
Mr. White said he had not anticipated ``at all'' upon his election in 1982 that less than two years later he would oversee the major overhaul of the state's education system that the legislature passed in June of last year (see related story).
Responding to some critics' view that new standards have been set too high for some children, he says, ``We are asking each of these children to do more than we ever asked them to do . . . and they can do it.'' Illustrating his point, he cites the coach who ``doesn't say we're going to lower the bar so everyone can go over it -- he raises it.'' In the same way, he adds, ``[The children's] capabilities have to be stretched so we can find out what they can do.''
But does this mean, as some think, that those children who fail to ``clear the bar'' will be forgotten and increasingly shunted at an early age to nonacademic endeavors? White says no.
``Our plan strikes at the heart of that concern,'' he says, pointing to a number of new programs mandated in the reform bill: an early childhood development program, emphasizing English instruction, that every district must offer to four-year-olds; tutoring programs for failing students; special courses to address the difficulties of students from homes where English is not the principal language; alternative education programs to keep students with discipline problems in school, and strictly limited class sizes.
Governor White describes as ``a very fair portrayal'' the notion held by many that the reform bill was an anti-education-establishment measure. ``It wouldn't have been needed if the [state's former] education committee had been increasing standards,'' he says.
He acknowledges that the specter of newly required teacher competency tests has led to low morale in the profession. But he maintains they were needed to restore public confidence in education.
As for higher education, the governor says he wishes to remind those concerned that ``we haven't cut one penny yet'' from the public higher education system's budget.
Last December the legislative Budget Board, working to chip away at the state's $1 billion deficit, caused a furor by proposing a whopping 26-percent cut in higher education outlays. Among those criticizing the proposal was Bobby Ray Inman, the former director of the National Security Agency who brought a research consortium of major high-technology firms to Austin in part on a promise of continued strong state support for higher education. A more recent proposal is for a 4 percent cut. And Mr. White maintains that not only will cuts not affect the science and professional programs, but that ``we will actually see a $50 million increase or more'' in university research funding.
Governor White maintains that even as transportation, water, and other major issues demand increasing attention, education will remain ``my top priority.'' And it seems appropriate for the governor of a state that is growing out of a dependence on one natural resource -- oil -- to say that his priority is dictated by one conviction: that democracy, which he calls ``the one renewable resource we have,'' can only be perpetuated by a well-educated society.