Kyle Burns, 13, is one of those dream students. His grades are all As and Bs, he is a star tight end on the junior high football team and everyone seems to like him.
But there is one sour note: this year, he is repeating seventh grade.
It was his father's idea. Clay Burns, once an all-district high school running back, wants Kyle to get a college football scholarship and says "the extra year of physical maturity" could make all the difference.
Holding back a student-athlete in school or college this way is known as "redshirting," which used to be so widespread in Texas high schools that state interscholastic athletic officials banned it.
To their dismay, they found that they have driven the practice into junior highs. So next month, red-faced over the Burns redshirting, they are expected to extend the rules to cover that tender age group.
"If they do," warned Mike Rosenberg, principal of Northwest Junior High School near Fort Worth, where young Burns, who at 5 feet 11 towers over his classmates, is taking an encore waltz through the seventh grade, "you can bet we'll start getting parents holding back their fourth- and fifth-graders."
Whether Texans have gone hopelessly bonkers over school ball games is not a frivolous question. Over the next year it might become one of the state's hottest political issues.
The man who hopes to make it so is H. Ross Perot, a Dallas computer magnate who is no stranger to high-risk adventures. His 1969 scheme to deliver Christmas supplies to American POWs in Vietnam and his 1979 bankrolling of a commando-style rescue of two of his employes from an Iranian prison have made him one of the state's outsized personas, the stuff of legend and ridicule.
Now Perot is taking on perhaps his most formidable foe: such beloved Texas baubles as artificial-turf school playing fields, elementary school twirling teams, seventh-grade football games on Tuesday nights, day-long golf team practices during school hours, high school football teams that find a need to employ as many as a dozen coaches ("not even the Cowboys have that many," Perot said incredulously) and parents recruited for jobs by local civic boosters on the strength of their children's athletic prowess.
"Our schools have become places dedicated to play," said Perot, chairman of a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Gov. Mark White (D) and the state legislature to make a full-scale review of public education in Texas.
"Our communities seem to be mainly interested in how well the boys play and the girls prance . . . . I thought I was living pretty good until I found a school system that had towel warmers and towel coolers for the football team," he told one group of educators.
Perot has been crisscrossing the state all summer, collecting horror stories about a public school system obsessed with sports.
"One school district gave a winning coach a salary greater than the superintendent," he said. "The superintendent and principal then received salary increases to correct the problem. At this point, the district had exceeded its budget, and teachers' salaries had to be cut."
Perot said he cannot get an exact count on the number of artificial-turf fields at Texas high schools but thinks there are at least a dozen. "What do such stadiums cost, and how does that add up to success in life?" he asked.
He also said he has figured out why so many of the state's high schools are so big and "impersonal," noting:
"When you get all the way down to why did anybody build schools that big--all the studies show huge schools are not efficient--it's to assemble a critical mass of guys who weigh 240 pounds or more to go rolling around out there on a field on Friday. It has nothing to do with education."
When Perot unloaded these and other observations on a group of six high school principals who testified before his select committee last week, they admitted some excesses but urged him in effect not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Then Perot asked how many of them were former coaches. All but one were, and that got him started on another favorite subject.
"Those guys shot themselves in both feet," he said. "We've got an old-boy network among school principals. If a coach has a couple of losing seasons but he's popular in the community, there's a tendency to kick him upstairs and make him the principal and then go out and try to recruit a winning coach."
Despite his tart observations, Perot does not see the education establishment as the enemy. When it comes to shaping priorities of Texas public schools, Perot knows, the real power-brokers are the people.
They are the ones he says he intends to educate by spending several million dollars of his personal resources in polling and proselytizing over the next year. The goal is more state funding for education and cutting back, not eliminating, some extra-curricular activities.
In Texas, about half of funds spent on public schools come from local taxes, and local school boards have virtually total control of all locally generated money. If they have met basic state standards and then want to build swimming pools instead of chemistry labs, it is their call.
"We have school districts in this state where 1,000 people show up at a Boosters Club meeting and three show up at the PTA. And it's the Boosters Club that goes out and elects the board, which then sets the spending priorities," Perot said.
Winning school teams, of course, have long been a source of great civic pride and social bonding, especially in small, remote and otherwise dreary west Texas towns. Local pride they instill has long helped local boards pass school bond issues.
But Perot thinks things have gotten out of whack. He said he is appalled that, for example, in some school districts students must maintain B averages to participate in the band while football players must earn only three "Ds" to stay eligible. He wants academic requirements tightened.
He also wants to eliminate football from junior high schools and ensure in high schools that extracurricular activities do not cut heavily into the school day.
He knows he is sailing into the wind. "At a time when pleasure-seeking and instant gratification are in vogue with both adults and children . . . are we going to toil, work, persevere in order to learn?" he asked with missionary zeal.
In the next year, Perot plans to use "the newsworthiness of my name" to attract crowds to town meetings throughout the state. If he builds enough public support, he said, he will ask lawmakers to rearrange the state's educational priorities fundamentally as they also bolster state funding for schools.
Despite its richness in vital resources, Texas ranks 25th nationally in teacher salaries and 44th in quality of students who launch a teaching career.
"As a sort of worst-case scenario, I plan to give speeches to Boosters Clubs in west Texas," Perot said. "Without grass-roots support, this whole Chinese fire drill won't mean a thing."
He may find support in unlikely places--for one, young Burns' mother, who is separated from her husband and son but attends all of Kyle's football games. She is not happy with the redshirting.
"If he gets hurt or something goes wrong, it's a wasted year," she told The Dallas Morning News. "It's academic suicide."