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Lege needs to show committment to state’s kids

January 13, 2019

As Texas kicks off another legislative session, the Legislature is under the microscope in a way this state hasn’t experienced in years.

Whether you pore over November election data or simply listen to the chatter around the state capitol, the conclusion is clear: next year, state legislators are likely to face the most competitive elections they’ve seen in a decade, and those elections will be shaped by policy decisions they make this year.

School finance is arguably the top issue of the session. Voters should watch to see whether a year’s worth of school finance hearings results in more funding for schools to improve student success.

Voters will also be watching to see how much progress Texas makes on other critical children’s issues, including improving student mental health, foster care, health care, and early childhood programs.

Lawmakers’ actions — or inaction — on these issues will help determine whether kids are growing up healthy, staying safe, and walking into the classroom each day ready to learn.

We’re glad state leaders have talked about addressing student mental health this session. Concerns about several issues have put it squarely on their agenda: school safety, the high suicide attempt rate among Texas high school students, the trauma of Hurricane Harvey, and links between student mental health, behavior, and school success. TEA has a commendable proposal to help school districts address student mental health. The Legislature should add more funding to it and designate the money for strategies proven to make schools safer and more supportive.

We’ve praised the governor, Legislature, and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for improving Child Protective Services the last two years, but the momentum must continue. The Legislature now has to ensure that when children are removed from their families and placed in foster care they are not only safe but also healing from trauma, thriving in school, and on track to become successful adults. Additionally, the Legislature should prepare for implementation of the new federal Family First Act so Texas can leverage future funding opportunities to help more kids stay safely with their families rather than entering foster care.

Some Texas leaders say they want to focus on improving access to health care, which has emerged as a top priority for voters. That would be a welcome change after years of inaction — and dire consequences. Texas has the nation’s highest rates of uninsured adults and kids. Many Texas communities have disturbing rates of pregnancy complications and maternal and infant mortality. And flaws in our Medicaid Managed Care system make it harder for some kids with disabilities or in foster care to get the medical care they urgently need. There are large and small steps legislators can take on each of these issues.

For years, many state leaders on both sides of the aisle have recognized the importance of kids entering kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed instead of starting behind their classmates and struggling to catch up. Yet, except for offering one-time pre-k grants following the 2015 session, legislators have largely failed to support children in their most critical early years.

After cutting nearly $150 million in pre-k funds last session, the Legislature should now follow the State Board of Education’s recommendation to fund full-day, voluntary pre-k as part of a new school finance plan rather than continuing to fund just half-day pre-k. Following the closure of 18 Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) programs for toddlers with disabilities amid state funding cuts over the last eight years, the Legislature should also provide the ECI funding that state officials recently requested.

And, after the Austin American-Statesman investigation into the tragic consequences of inadequate state oversight of child care, legislators should ensure more working Texas parents — not just the wealthier ones — can enroll their kids in child care that is safe and provides the engaging learning environment children need to get ready for school.

The progress Texas makes on these issues in 2019 will gives voters a window into state leaders’ values, their compassion for our kids, and their commitment to shaping a brighter future for Texas. We are calling on state leaders to work together to better protect and support Texas children.

Voters will be paying close attention to see if legislators follow through.

Stephanie Rubin is the CEO of Texans Care for Children.

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