Pop Quiz for Legislators

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

Former Congressman Chris Shays used to say his job was like taking every class in college at once and needing to get straight A’s. The same could be said for the state legislators preparing to spend the next five months at the Texas Capitol. So let’s start the semester with a pop quiz on Children’s Policy Issues 101.

Question: Under state law, if a 17-year-old is caught stealing a candy bar or making another bonehead mistake, is he considered a juvenile or an adult?

Answer: An adult.

Fortunately, this session, a growing number of sheriffs, judges and other officials are pushing a proposal to make the juvenile system the default for 17-year-olds while keeping the option of certifying teens as adults when necessary. Holding 17-year-olds accountable in the juvenile system would reduce crime by connecting them with strict juvenile probation programs and age-appropriate education and rehab services.

Question: In Texas, how many 2-year-olds can be in a single child-care teacher’s class?

Answer: 11.

In my 2-year-old’s child care center, one of his teachers spends half the time changing diapers or taking kids to the bathroom while the other teacher reads them books or supervises art projects. But when centers choose not to voluntarily add that extra teacher or keep class sizes smaller, kids don’t get the attention they need during this critical stage of brain development. As Gov.-elect Greg Abbott focuses on early education, improving child care should go hand-in-hand with his pre-K focus.

Question: Speaking of pre-K, what’s the maximum class size and student-teacher ratio for public school classes serving these 4-year-olds?

Answer: Trick question. There’s no state limit.

One study estimated Texas could save $3.50 for every $1 invested in pre-K by lowering long-term expenditures on special education, criminal justice, etc., but only if pre-K programs were high quality. In districts that ask a single, brave pre-K teacher with no aide to get 22 or even 30 kids ready for kindergarten, we’re not getting that kind of bang for our buck. That’s why the governor-elect’s pre-K legislation should include statewide class size and ratio limits just like we have for K-12.

Question: National best practices call for a maximum caseload of 12 kids per child abuse investigator. In 2013, what was the average caseload at CPS?

Answer: 25.

When the legislature expects caseworkers to investigate so many cases at once, mistakes happen and children needlessly get hurt. Fortunately, legislative leaders have made it clear that strengthening CPS is a priority this session.

Question: Let’s say a mom is working on her degree and raising a 1-year-old while her husband makes $19,000 per year with no health benefits working as an office clerk. What program could they call to get affordable medical insurance?

Answer: None.

She can get coverage for contraception and a few screenings, and maybe they can get some help at a clinic, but they’ll probably skip some of the basic medical care they need. The ER can stabilize them in a crisis, passing on the cost of the unpaid bills to our property taxes. Heading into the session, business and medical leaders are pushing legislators to accept new federal Medicaid funding and create a plan to connect these Texans with an insurance option. Kids are counting on them. They do a lot better when their parents have health coverage.

How’d you do on the quiz? More importantly, stay tuned to see how legislators do this session.

Peter Clark is communications director at Texans Care for Children.