Texas Gov. Mark White (D) in 1985. (Lana Harris/AP)

Mark White, a Democrat who championed public education reforms during his single term as a Democratic governor of Texas, died Aug. 5 in Houston. He was 77.

He had kidney cancer, according to his wife, Linda Gale White, and his son Andrew White.

Mr. White was Texas’s attorney general when he defeated incumbent Gov. Bill Clements, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, in 1982. Clements reclaimed the governor’s office four years later.

Mr. White’s education reforms included pay raises and competency tests for teachers, class size limits for elementary schools and the creation of the state’s high school basic skills graduation test. He also pushed through a $4 billion tax increase for schools and highways.

In a 2011 interview with the Associated Press, Mr. White said he tried to model his education platform on what his mother, a former first-grade teacher, had said of her classroom experience.

“It was all designed around what a first-grade teacher needs,” he said.

Mr. White appointed Dallas billionaire Ross Perot — who ran for president as an independent in 1992 — to lead a special panel on education that developed some of the key changes.

A “no-pass, no-play” initiative, which barred students from playing school sports if they were failing a class, was politically unpopular in a state crazy about high school football.

A state district judge blocked the provision before the state supreme court ruled that it was a legitimate function of the state’s goal to provide quality education. Mr. White tried to defend the rule during his losing campaign in 1986.

“Leave it alone,” he implored state lawmakers as he left office in 1987. “Let’s be real: Anyone who can study a playbook can study a textbook. Americans didn’t get to the moon on a quarterback sneak.”

On the day of his inauguration, Mr. White used gold-painted bolt cutters on a chain that had been strung across the front gate of the governor’s mansion and shouted “Come on in!” to followers. Several hundred did, forcing Mr. White to stop them at the stairs leading to the master bedroom.

Mr. White also pushed Texas to move further from its agricultural roots and ties to the oil economy by trying to attract new industries. During his term, dropping oil prices shook the state’s economy.

“I learned it’s a lot harder to govern the state when the price of oil drops to $9 a barrel,” he said in 2011.

Breaking a campaign pledge not to raise taxes, Mr. White pushed for and won tax increases to pay for education and roads. The taxes cost him politically.

“So much for guts and glory,” he said on his way out of office. “Whatever happens in the next four years, don’t blame me.”

As governor, Mr. White supported the state’s use of the death penalty, but by 2009 he had reservations about capital punishment. He worked with the Innocence Project on behalf of wrongfully convicted inmates.

Mark Wells White Jr., was born March 17, 1940, in Henderson, Tex. His family later moved to Houston. He received degrees in business administration and law from Baylor University in Waco, Tex.

He was appointed secretary of state in 1973 and was elected state attorney general in 1979.

After returning to private law practice, Mr. White made a last attempt at public office by running for governor in the 1990 Democratic primary but was defeated by Ann Richards, who went on to become governor.

— Associated Press