Focusing on children's issues will shape future of schools, neighborhoods, economy

This commentary first appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

As state legislators begin another 140-day session in Austin this week, their agenda includes a number of key children's issues. The decisions they make will directly change the lives of many kids, in many cases creating the kinds of positive or negative experiences that shape their long-term brain architecture. They will also influence our schools, neighborhoods and economy for decades to come. Fortunately, the Legislature is considering positive changes to at least three critical policies that affect children.

When a policy issue is discussed in a single hearing before the legislative session, it usually means lawmakers are thinking about taking action on it during the next session. Two or three hearings signal a priority. Over the past year, Texas legislators attended a total of seven different hearings on child protection, signaling a keen interest in strengthening Child Protective Services in 2015.

In hearing after hearing, former foster children testified about the abuse and neglect they suffered in the very foster homes the state selected to keep them safe after pulling them from their parents. Witnesses mourned the recent deaths of children while with the foster families assigned to protect them. Policy experts explained that child abuse investigators and other CPS staffers couldn't keep kids safe when they were assigned 30 or more vulnerable children at once. Legislators now appear poised to support the funding and the safety standards necessary to protect kids.

You also know a policy issue has a full head of steam when both gubernatorial candidates make it a top campaign priority. The push to strengthen voluntary public school pre-K for 4-year-olds has the support of Republicans, Democrats, business leaders and many other Texans.

Research confirms that investing in children from birth to age 5 means they are less likely to start kindergarten behind their classmates, and more likely to succeed in school and later in life.

However, the research is also clear that maximizing the return on our investment depends on the quality of those pre-K classes. Big class sizes? No teacher's aide? Poorly trained teachers? Then pre-K programs - and children - don't reach their potential. One estimate says Texas could save at least $3.50 for every dollar we invest in pre-K by avoiding future expenditures on special education, criminal justice and other areas. But to get that much bang for our buck, we need to improve the quality of our pre-K program.

We can start by establishing class size limits and student-teacher ratios. Currently, there is no statewide cap, so some teachers are left to juggle 30 4-year-olds at once. The Legislature should also improve the child care ratios that allow a single teacher to monitor 15 3-year-olds, making it nearly impossible to keep them safe, read them a book, or provide the other kinds of attention they need during this time of critical brain development. Establishing an Office of Early Learning would also help drive quality improvements and avoid a repeat of the state's inadequate application for federal pre-K funding.

In juvenile justice, a growing number of sheriffs, judges and other officials are pushing for a more effective and affordable way to hold 17-year-olds accountable when they make a mistake. It may surprise most Texans, but under state law every 17-year-old caught stealing a candy bar or committing any other offense is considered an adult.

In the adult system, their parents aren't notified when they're arrested. Seventeen-year-olds are more likely to commit suicide or be assaulted in adult facilities, so taxpayers pay more to try to keep them safe. The adult system doesn't provide the programs that help steer youth away from committing more crimes in the future, but it does provide an adult criminal record that makes it harder to ever find a job. In the juvenile system, on the other hand, teens are held to stricter probation requirements and provided the education and services they need to straighten out.

We agree with the law enforcement officials urging legislators to make the juvenile system the default for 17-year-olds while maintaining the option to certify teens as adults when necessary.

In addition to these child-focused policies, the Legislature will make additional decisions that impact kids and other Texans. Will it listen to the leaders in business, health care, and local government calling for a Texas-specific plan to accept new Medic­aid funding and ensure workers have a health coverage option? Will it protect the revenue needed today and in the future for strategic investments in kids and families? Will it allow health and human services officials to focus on improving services and efficiency rather than distracting them with the task of building a new mega-agency?

By making the right calls on these upcoming decisions, legislators can put more children - and our whole state - on a path to a bright future.

Peter Clark is the communications director at Texans Care for Children.