As a the new legislature comes to town and we get to work pushing our legislative agenda, here’s a snapshot of a few of the high-profile children’s issues with momentum heading into the session:
- Most people don't realize that every Texas 17-year-old who is caught drinking beer, shoplifting at 7-11, or committing any other offense is sent to the adult criminal justice system. In the adult system, their parents aren't notified when they're arrested. They are more likely to commit suicide or be assaulted in adult facilities, so tax payers 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, teens are held to stricter probation requirements and provided the education and services needed to straighten out. We agree with sheriffs, judges, and other officials who are calling on the legislature to hold 17-year-olds accountable in the juvenile system while maintaining the option of certifying them as adults when necessary.
- We are pleased that the Governor-elect is prioritizing pre-K, and we look forward to seeing more details of his legislative proposals. His position reflects a bi-partisan, research-backed consensus that investments in children between birth and age five help them succeed when they get to school and later in life. This session the legislature's should focus on improving the quality of early education. One way key way to improve quality is by establishing a limit on pre-K class size and the ratio of children to teachers, and in child care lowering the allowable class sizes and ratios. Currently a single pre-K teacher could have 30 or more four-year-olds and a single child care teacher could have 11 two-year-olds, making it nearly impossible to provide the attention, teaching, and safety they need. An Office of Early Learning should also be established to ensure pre-K quality, coordinate efforts, and improve pre-K grant applications to the federal government.
- Legislative leaders are poised to work on strengthening CPS and foster care after several troubling reports, legislative hearings, and high-profile deaths of children in the very foster homes the state selected to keep them safe. We're pleased to see growing attention on the need for the legislature to provide appropriate funding so that child abuse investigators and other CPS caseworkers have safe caseloads. When a single CPS caseworker is responsible for close to 30 vulnerable children at once, if not more, then red flags are missed, corners are cut, and children get hurt.
- Currently, Texas workers with incomes below the poverty line ($24,000 for a family of four) do not have an affordable health insurance option unless their employers provide one. We're pleased to see Texas leaders in business, health care, media, and local government calling on the legislature to develop a plan to accept our share of new Medicaid funding to close this Coverage Gap. We prefer a straightforward Medicaid expansion but we're open to considering proposals to use the funding for private insurance, as several other red states are doing. A solution will strengthen Texas families by ensuring access to preventive care, mental health care, cancer treatment, and more. It will strengthen the Texas economy by creating jobs; helping small businesses that can't afford to provide insurance or have employees out sick; and taking pressure off the insurance premiums and property taxes used to cover unpaid hospital bills for the uninsured.
The legislature will also address critical cross-cutting issues. For example:
- The legislature should have a robust discussion on the Sunset Commission's recommendation to combine all state health and human services agencies into a single mega-agency. We believe that asking officials to spend their time building a new bureaucratic system will distract them from delivering basic services to families and implementing Sunset's other recommendations to improve efficiency.
- As legislators call for tax cuts, we agree with business leaders calling for targeted, strategic investments instead of cutting the revenue available to critical programs today and in the future. While business leaders are focused on transportation infrastructure funding, we believe investments in the "infrastructure" of children's services and opportunities are no less important to our state's economy.
Other lower-profile but important issues next session include full funding for Early Childhood Intervention for young children with disabilities and developmental delays; stronger mental health training for school personnel; and support for local efforts to educate parents about sugary drinks.