Texas legislators have already filed over 1,000 bills and resolutions this session, and we expect thousands more before the filing deadline in March. Out of those thousands of bills, the vast majority will not become law. But with more than four months left in the session, and a can-do bipartisan spirit evident so far this session, hope springs eternal.
There are too many good children’s bills to name them all here, but this blog post identifies a sample of some of the good ones in a few of the issue areas that have momentum this session. As the session continues, we’ll highlight additional good bills for Texas kids.
Today’s list doesn’t include the budget bills, which are typically considered the most important bills of a legislative session. As we recently noted, we’re glad to see that the first drafts of the budget show that legislators want to make big investments in education, although only the House budget proposal funds mental health support in schools. And at this point, both the House and Senate proposals are missing critical funding for ECI for toddlers with disabilities, and both proposals largely maintain the status quo with foster care and CPS, which isn’t good enough. Still, these are first drafts, and we’re optimistic about working with legislators on these budget issues — especially if their constituents are speaking up.
The other huge bill (or bills) of the session that is not on this list is the school finance plan, which hasn’t been filed yet. We’re hopeful that pre-k will be one of the priorities in that plan, as recommended by the School Finance Commission.
Although the Senate appears poised to name committees soon and start working on its budget bill quickly, it will be a few weeks before hearings start on most bills. If you want to keep up to date on hearings and votes on particular bills, be sure to sign up here on the Legislature’s website and stay in touch with us through our email updates and social media posts.
And now, without further ado, we present to you 14 bills that are good for Texas kids:
HB 55 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez would improve early education by setting a maximum class size of 22 children and a student-to teacher ratio of 1 teacher for every 11 kids in pre-k classes, as recommended by a TEA-commissioned report. Texas currently has no maximum class sizes or teacher-student ratios in state-funded pre-k programs. The research is clear that the strongest pre-k impacts come when teachers have time to engage with each young learner.
SB 36* by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, HB 272 by Rep. Diego Bernal, HB 612 by Rep. Shawn Thierry, SB 287* by Sen. Borris Miles and HB 753 by Rep. Gene Wu would provide funding for full-day pre-k, as recently recommended by the State Board of Education. Currently, the state only funds half-day pre-k through the school finance formulas. Full-day programs attract families whose work schedules do not accommodate half-day programs and research has shown that students who attend full-day pre-k are stronger readers by third grade and better equipped for success later in life. The School Finance Commission’s recent report highlighted the importance of including full-day pre-k in the school finance plan that the Legislature develops this session.
*SB 36 and SB 287 would also provide for universal, optional pre-k for children over the age of 4, removing the current eligibility standards.
HB 680 by Rep. Joe Deshotel would provide accountability and transparency around the state’s subsidized child care program. Despite the importance of safe and quality child care to Texas families, basic data and information about our child care system is severely lacking. The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), which manages the state’s subsidized child care program, would be required to assess and report the average cost of child care and the total number of providers and children participating in the state’s quality rating system, Texas Rising Star. Improving child care policies this session is particularly urgent in light of the problems uncovered by the Austin American-Statesman’s investigation of child care oversight in Texas.
SB 10 (originally filed as SB 63) by Sen. Jane Nelson would create a Texas Mental Health Care Consortium to leverage the expertise of health-related universities to improve the quality and availability of mental health services in Texas. Part of the consortium’s charge would be to establish a network of comprehensive child psychiatry access centers to provide consultation services and training opportunities for pediatricians and primary care providers on a regional basis. The consortium would also seek to expand the use of telemedicine for identifying and assessing behavioral health needs and providing access to mental health care services.
HB 822 by Rep. Tan Parker would support a multi-agency effort to develop a five year strategic plan to prevent and address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) among Texans. ACES are traumatic experiences that can affect children’s health and development for the rest of their lives, particularly if combined with other risk factors and if appropriate support or “protective factors” are not available. Using a public health framework, the bill directs state agencies to collaboratively analyze data, identify effective strategies to prevent and treat ACEs using existing programs, and recommend additional supports as needed, among other actions.
A pair of bills filed by Rep. Shawn Thierry would help address the mental health of students. HB 198 would allow school-based health centers to provide mental health services and education. HB 204 would require school districts to include mental health in its health education curriculum. Mental health support in schools has emerged as a priority issue for state leaders given the high level of interest in boosting school safety, preventing youth suicides, addressing student trauma after Hurricane Harvey, and supporting student mental health to improve both academics and behavior. Student mental health will also be a budget issue this session: TEA’s commendable proposal on student mental health is included in the House’s first draft of the state budget but is not yet included in the Senate version.
HB 501 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson and SB 314 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini would ensure children are included in mental health parity protections passed by the legislature last session by including a definition of "serious emotional disturbance of a child" in the Insurance Code and requiring certain health insurance plans to cover serious emotional disturbance of children just as they are required to cover serious mental illness in adults.
HB 72 by Rep. James White would allow for continuous health care coverage for adopted children who have a chronic health condition. Many adoptive parents have to find new doctors for their children because STAR Health managed care providers are not part of their health care network. Because STAR Health serves children and youth in foster care, the health care providers in STAR Health often offer trauma-informed care critical to help children in foster care heal. This bill would allow adoptive parents to elect to keep their children in the STAR Health network to continue that care.
HB 45 by Rep. Ina Minjarez would create a mentor program for older youth in foster youth. Youth who age out of Texas foster care tend to have worse outcomes compared to youth who exit care through adoption, permanent guardianship with a relative, or reunification. Poor outcomes include criminal justice system involvement, lower reading and math skills and high school graduation rates, homelessness, unemployment and likelihood of long-term dependence on public assistance, and early pregnancy. A workgroup formed by the Legislature during the last session recommended the use of a peer support model to further enhance support for older youth.
A package of three bills by Rep. Donna Howard would help inform decisions about expanding states services and supports that help pregnant and parenting youth preserve their young families. HB 473 improves data collection and reporting on pregnant and parenting youth in foster care. HB 474 adds homes serving pregnant and parenting youth to the foster care needs assessment. And HB 475 ensures all youth in foster care receive basic education and support to enhance their parenting skills. As our 2018 report on the subject highlighted, too many children in Texas foster care become young parents putting them at greater risk of poor health and education outcomes and having their own children removed by CPS. These bills are an important first step toward taking better care of these Texans.
SB 355 by Sen. Royce West directs the Department of Family and Protective Services to develop a strategic plan to leverage new opportunities to use federal funding to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep more children safely with their families in compliance with the Family First Prevention Services Act.
SB 189 by Sen. Borris Miles and HB 1879 by Rep. Sarah Davis would improve continuity of health care and reduce teen and unplanned pregnancy rates through smoother transitions between health programs. Young adults would be auto-enrolled into Healthy Texas Women (HTW) after they age-out of Children’s Medicaid and CHIP and are no longer eligible for those programs. Texas has the 4th highest teen birth rate in the nation and most teen births in Texas (77 percent) are to older teens (age 18-19). Automating enrollment into HTW would improve access to women’s preventive care and family planning. It would also save money: HHSC estimates that auto-enrollment would save $58.7 million in state general revenue between 2020 and 2025. [HB 1879 was filed after the original publication of this blog and subsequently added to this paragraph.]
HB 342 by Rep. Philip Cortez would allow children to stay in Medicaid for a full year, like Texas does for children in CHIP insurance. Texas has the highest rate and number of uninsured children in the country — and the problem is getting worse. Having insurance continuously throughout the year means kids can get check-ups, therapies and treatment for health conditions, and build a relationship with a health provider to track growth and development. In 2014, Texas rolled back eligibility rules for Medicaid. Now Texas kids have 6-month continuous coverage followed by month-to-month coverage for the second six months of each year. With extra paperwork and income checks at months 5, 6, 7, and 8, the combined effect of this undue administrative burden can cause eligible children to lose their Medicaid coverage.
HB 394 by Rep. Ina Minjarez would make improvements to the Medicaid managed care system by ensuring hearing officers consult with the HHSC medical director before determining the outcome of a hearing relating to denial of medically necessary services. As the Dallas Morning News investigation revealed, the fair hearing process — a process between health insurers and Medicaid families to figure out disputes over denial of a health service — can often be frustrating for Texas families. This adds much-needed, independent medical expertise into the fair hearing process so the hearing officer has more information when making decisions about denial of medical services.