The nation's third most populous and second most spacious state is conducting a social experiment with national implications. The state is Texas, and the subject is something Texans regard with an awe that 23rd century historians may call religious: football. Last year a commission headed by billionaire H. Ross Perot recommended, as part of a $4.6 billion education program, that public high school students in Texas be barred from extracurricular activities -- that's spelled f-o- o-t-b-a-l-l -- unless they maintained a passing grade in every course. Gov. Mark White urged the legislature to pass Mr. Perot's plan, including No Pass, No Play, and, after some uproar, it did.

Now comes the acid test. High school football is taken seriously in Texas: coaches are often paid more than principals, and residents of the Dallas suburb of Highland Park chartered two 727s to see their high school football team play in the championship in Midland 320 miles away. This is the first football season in which No Pass, No Play takes effect. The first quarter grades are out, and 83 players flunked at least one course at Aldine Eisenhower High School. Corpus Christi King lost 13 of 22 starters. Some 790 athletes were sidelined in San Antonio. Altogether 15 percent of the state's high school football players flunked one course and are ineligible to play for the next six weeks, which is to say for the rest of the football season.

Gov. White views the results with cheerful Texas optimism: "Where else in the country could you say that 85 percent of all the varsity football players passed every course?" More soberly, he notes that special tutoring has been going on to keep valuable players eligible, and that many students are learning more than they would have without No Pass, No Play.

The fact that such a measure could get the support of politicians who must run for reelection in football-crazy Texas shows the growing strength of the perception that public schools must teach basic skills better. Mr. Perot, a conservative Republican, and Mr. White, a Democrat who is described by even some of his friends as a political chameleon, agree that Texas needs to produce better educated young men and women, even if that hurts football, if it is to prosper in the future.

That is an idea that started in the South, where, historically, schools were underfinanced and often poorly staffed, and which has spread to the North, where even as teacher pay rose rapidly, educational performance fell. Now there are signs of improvement everywhere. No Pass, No Play in Texas is the most dramatic example of a change for the better wrought not in Washington or by experts, but in the states and by politicians and voters.