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Texas Drive To Modify No-Pass, No-Play Policy Stalls

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A drive by Texas lawmakers and educators to modify the state's strict no-pass, no-play policy appears to have been stopped short of the goal line.

Political scrimmaging over the effort, which has attracted intense public interest and the support of Gov. Ann B. Richards, was continuing late last week. But even those who want to scale back the current six-week ban on extracurricular activities for students with a failing grade acknowledged that the change faced fourth and long for this year.

The proposal, which won Senate backing but has been blocked by House leaders, would allow students to resume their activities after three weeks if their grades had improved.

Texas's no-pass, no-play rule, enacted as part of the state's 1984 education reforms, received national attention and spurred a host of similar laws in other states. (See Education Week, May 17, 1989.)

But the law, which covers activities ranging from student government to livestock exhibitions, has remained controversial in a state where high-school sports gener4ates fervent support.

'The Death Penalty'

Critics say that in its current form, no-pass, no-play often discourages students rather than forcing them to concentrate on their studies.

"We call it the death penalty," said Lamont Veatch, executive director of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals.

Because of the length of the extracurricular suspension, Mr. Veatch maintained, students who fall under the clause often miss out on entire events such as athletic seasons or student-council service.

"They are removed from participation, and no matter how hard they study, there's no light at the end of the tunnel," added Eddie Joseph, executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association. "I think a lot of youngsters give up instead of coming back."

School officials have complained that the provision is seen as such a formidable sanction that, in many cases, students motivated by athletics or other extracurricular activities have chosen to take less challenging classes instead of risking a bad grade.

"Some students--and probably not strong students--but many young people stay in school to do some of these things," Mr. Veatch argued. "We've seen some of the coaches helping these kids fill out their schedules. We've seen cases where it has caused them to drop out."

But legislative leaders who are opposing the change said they do not believe the six-week ban is too strict.

"The Speaker believes the provisions have been working, and that we should continue to work to place the emphasis in public education on academics rather than extracurriculars," said John Bender, press secretary for Speaker of the House Gibson Lewis.

"Six weeks is not a death penalty," Mr. Bender added. "If someone equates not playing football for six weeks with dying, that's a good example of what the problem is."

Other legislative leaders, including Lieut. Gov. Bob Bullock and Senator Carl A. Parker, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, also oppose changing the law.

'Monster' Public Support

Despite leadership opposition, the Senate attached the modification to an omnibus education bill, which passed on a 20-to-10 vote.

In the House, however, the plan was dealt what many supporters saw as a fatal blow when the Public Education Committee voted to remove the no-pass, no-play provisions from the omnibus bill.

Even so, Representative Troy Fraser said he would offer a floor amendment to restore the modification to the omnibus bill.

"This is a monster," Mr. Fraser said in describing popular support for the amendment. "It is by far one of the largest issues we've faced, and there are very few fence-sitters on this."

Mr. Fraser argued that, while the six-week ban is often seen as a banishment, a three-week interlude might serve as a motivation.

"Three weeks is an attainable goal. Six weeks is an eternity," he said. "Whether we like it or not, athletics influence some kids' decision to stay in school. It is not unusual for a child to have trouble in passing one subject, and this is one of the strictest penalties in all 50 states."

"I do not want to take no-pass, no-play away," Mr. Fraser said. "But the six-week rule is not working."

Supporters of the modification complain that political forces are working against them.

"We think it's more of an image factor than anything else," said Mr. Veatch, noting the national publicity Texas won for stressing academics after passing the 1984 plan.

Other observers pointed out that the legislature has already passed a costly and contentious school-finance-reform bill this year, and is currently considering school improvements proposed by the Governor. In that atmosphere, the observers contend, legislative leaders may be trying to put off the no-pass, no-play issue to avoid public criticism that they are softening their reform resolve at a time when they are asking for more in taxes.

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