‘No-Pass, No-Play’ at 5: Texas Statute Still a Controversial Model for Reform

By Nancy Mathis — May 17, 1989 7 min read

Sixteen-year-old Doyle Jones can outrun the nation’s best high-school sprinters, but not Texas law.

The Dallas track sensation, who holds the national high-school records for the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes, fell just eight points shy of passing an English course and thus became one of the latest victims of the state’s controversial “no-pass, no-play” law.

Late last week, a state district judge denied the sprinter’s request for an injunction that would have allowed him to take part in the state championship track meet scheduled for last weekend.

The boy’s lawyer contends that school officials did not--as required under the statute--warn his client he was in danger of failing the course. The state lost a similar case in 1987.

The Dallas student’s suit cast the spotlight once again on the rule, which is easily the most debated provision of the state’s far-ranging 1984 school-reform law.

Championed by the Dallas industrialist H. Ross Perot, the rule’s aim was to improve academic achievement by threatening to deprive students of a cherished high-school perquisite--the opportunity to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. Under the measure, a failing grade in a single course sidelines a student for six weeks.

The Texas law captured the nation’s attention during the early years of the reform movement and has spawned imitations in at least nine other states. More recently, it has given rise in several states to a spin-off concept--withholding drivers’ licenses from dropouts and low-achieving students.

But even as it enters its fifth year, opinions on the law’s effectiveness remain mixed and research data on its impact are sketchy. For students, the no-play penalty can be devastating. And for officials, the issue has proven to be a major political headache.

Action in Other States

In addition to Texas, since 1984 legislatures, state school boards, or athletic associations in Alabama,4Arizona, California, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia have raised their academic eligibility requirements for extracurricular activities.

In 1983, Florida began requiring students to pass four of five high-school courses to retain eligibility, but its policy received little publicity.

Legislatures in at least six other states have defeated measures to set no-pass, no-play standards during the same five-year period.

State athletic and activity associations historically have required students to achieve at least certain grade levels in order to retain eligibility, said Chris Pipho, director of the information clearinghouse for the Education Commission of the States.

But the reform efforts of the early 1980’s, which focused on increased graduation requirements and academic standards, prompted officials to take a closer look at their athletic-eligibility rules.

“It focused attention on why schools operate,” said Woodrow Marsh, executive director of the Mississippi High School Activities Association, which in 1985 began requiring students to maintain passing grades in at least 4.5 high-school units.

“In Texas, high-school athletics had gotten totally out of hand,” noted Charles N. Beard Jr., president of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. In his view, the law has had a positive and lasting effect on education in Texas.

“Athletics was the reason kids were in school,” Mr. Beard said. “That’s the cart before the horse.”

School officials should use sports as a motivational tool, said Brent Poulton, the Tennessee state school board’s executive director. The board requires students to pass five out of six courses per semester.

“The fact of the matter is athletics is an important part of the high- school experience,” Mr. Poulton said. “The idea is to use that resource wisely.”

Spring Football Banned

This spring, the Georgia state board of education took the academics-versus-athletics issue a step fur8ther by banning spring football practice altogether.

The state’s Professional Practices Commission also is expected to rule soon on the fate of a coach who allegedly allowed an ineligible player to take part in his team’s practices. The state board’s 1987 policy gives the commission the authority to suspend teachers’ certificates for one to three years for such infractions, a spokesman said.

Starting next fall, Arizona will require students to pass all of their classes in order to participate in sports and activities.

Two years ago, the Arizona legislature directed the state board to adopt a no-pass, no-play policy, but the panel responded by allowing school districts to set their own rules. Upset by an apparent lack of progress and coaches’ complaints of uneven policies, lawmakers last year pressured the board to create a single statewide standard.

C. Diane Bishop, Arizona’s state superintendent, said the haggling over the issue “wasted energy and time” for the board.

“It’s not an academic issue, it’s a sports issue,” said Ms. Bishop.

Impact on Sprinter

For Doyle Jones, being sidelined for failing to pass his English course has hurt deeply, said his lawyer, Frank P. Hernandez.

“This has all the impact a 16-year-old can get when he’s wanting to run one of the biggest races of his life,” said Mr. Hernandez. “He cares very deeply about being the fastest man in America. He’s serious about his track and he’s worked very hard at it.”

Texas Education Agency officials said although no firm data exist, they know that a number of students each year successfully obtain court orders allowing them to participate in extracurricular events even though they do not meet the state’s eligibility requirements.

Most of the students affected are not athletes, but those participating in non-sporting events such as stock shows, said Ernest Chambers, the tea’s director of extracurricular activities.

Publicity in the Jones case was heightened because he attends Dallas’s Carter High School, which won a controversial state football championship this winter amid accusations of grade tampering.

The Dallas Independent School District, on behalf of Carter High, filed a lawsuit challenging Commissioner of Education William Kirby’s authority to assess student eligibility under the no-pass, no-play statute.

The commissioner had disqualified a star football player at Carter, a move the district contended was improper because it was not allowed to present evidence on the student’s behalf. Commissioner Kirby contends that if the school district wins the pending case, it will undermine enforcement of the no-pass, no-play law.

Few Fans Among Coaches

The concept apparently has few fans in the coaching profession or the associations that regulate extracurricular activities.

“There was a lot of ink and conversation about it because of the cleverContinued on Page XXXX

‘No-Pass, No-Play’ Law Still Controversial as Ever

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ness of the term ‘no-pass, no-play’ and the personality of the individuals in Texas,” said Brice B. Durbin, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Some states may have benefited by reviewing their eligiblity requirements, said Mr. Durbin. The association’s opposition to such rules is not due to their intent, he explained, but rather to what it contends is their unfair effect on students involved in activities.

Those students, who traditionally are less likely to drop out of school because of their involvement, are subject to a punishment not imposed on other students, he said.

Moreover, said Mr. Durbin, there has never been any research to determine the impact of such laws. Critics of no-pass, no-play rules have long contended that the measures encourage students to take less-demanding courses or to drop out if they are denied the chance to participate.

Many of the states with such rules do not require school districts to report on the number of students declared ineligible.

In Texas, where the attention and controversy has been greatest, the state education agency is in the midst of conducting the first comprehensive study of the law, said Mr. Chambers.

Penalty Seen Too Harsh

Several Texas researchers have found that although a majority of the state’s educators and students support the statute, most consider the six-week penalty period too harsh.

One recent survey indicated that more than 60 percent of principals favor the provision, compared with only 16 percent of the coaches. That finding seems to show that the law is gaining backers among principals, who banded with coaches in opposi8tion to the rule shortly after its adoption and made the issue a factor in the state’s 1986 gubernatorial campaign.

“The acceptance of it is growing,” said David Erlandson, director of the educational administration department at Texas A&M University.

Texas legislators, meanwhile, have fought back attempts to repeal or weaken the statute, which House Speaker Gib Lewis once described as “one small screw in the whole airplane” of the state’s 1984 reform package.

Last week, for example, the House education committee blocked an attempt to water down the no-pass, no-play law.

“There’s no question that, in terms of impact, no-pass, no-play was symbolic,” said Mr. Erlandson. “They were serving notice that academics, not football, was king. I’m not sure the battle is over. I’m just not sure the new king has gone through his coronation.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘No-Pass, No-Play’ at 5: Texas Statute Still a Controversial Model for Reform