Leg­is­la­tors closely watched on child is­sues

San Antonio Express-News - - OTHER VIEWS - By Stephanie Ru­bin Stephanie Ru­bin is the CEO of Tex­ans Care for Chil­dren.

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 en­ter 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.

Ralph Bar­rera / As­so­ci­ated Press

Texas Sens. Kirk Wat­son, D-Travis, left, and Lois Kolkhorst, R-Wash­ing­ton, lis­ten to tes­ti­mony on chil­dren’s health is­sues dur­ing the 2017 leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

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