Can you believe we're already one-fourth of the way through the Texas legislative session?
The budget-writing committees in the House and Senate have started holding hearings to help them build on the first drafts of the state budget, and other committees will start holding hearings on other bills soon. Here's a quick rundown of where some of the key children's issues stand at the Legislature:
Pre-k: The big opportunity for pre-k this session is through the new school finance plan that state leaders have declared a top priority. The School Finance Commission's recommendations to the Legislature included $1.4 billion for early literacy strategies, including pre-k. There is an important debate about how to distribute that funding among districts, but there should be no debate about including in the school finance bill at least $1.4 billion for pre-k and other early education priorities. The bill has not been filed yet, although other important pre-k bills have.
Student mental health: Along with school finance, the Governor also declared that both mental health and school safety are top priorities ("Emergency Items") for this session. The Governor and Senate leaders have highlighted SB 10 by Sen. Nelson, a great bill to provide psychiatric treatment in the community to more Texans with significant mental health challenges. We have emphasized the importance of also addressing student mental health through our schools, as proposed in HB 1069 and HB 1072 by Rep. Price, HB 906 by Rep. Thompson, and the TEA plan that has some funding in the House's version of the draft state budget. School-based strategies support students before a crisis becomes apparent, improving academics, safety, health, behavior, and the day-to-day stress on teachers.
Health care: Voters have made clear that health care is a top priority, and a number of legislators have filed health coverage bills. For example, the children's health coverage bill by Sen. Zaffirini and Reps. Cortez and Rose would allow kids enrolled in Medicaid to stay covered for a full year without the extra rounds of paperwork now required. Several bills would provide Medicaid insurance to low-wage moms for a year after giving birth rather than leaving them uninsured two months after delivery. Other legislation by Sen. Miles would reduce teen pregnancy and save the state money through smoother transitions between health programs. And legislation by Sen. Johnson and Reps. Israel and Bucy would let Texans vote on accepting Medicaid expansion funding offered by the federal government to cover low-wage workers who don't receive insurance at work. It remains to be seen whether state leaders will seize these opportunities.
Foster care & CPS: The Legislature and CPS made important progress over the last two years, but there's a lot of work to do this session. To keep kids safely with their parents and out of foster care, we're backing a package of bills by Rep. Howard to support pregnant and parenting youth in foster care, urging budget-writers to expand access to substance use treatment, and calling on state leaders to prepare to implement the federal Family First Act. Further investments will also be needed to ensure that when CPS places kids in foster care, they are safe, healing, and thriving. However, the first drafts of the state budget largely maintain the (unacceptable) status quo for foster care.
ECI: To prevent more closures of Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) programs and ensure toddlers with disabilities are able to access these critical services, we are supporting the Health and Human Services Commission's request for an additional $71 million for ECI. That funding is missing from the first drafts of the state budget. You can visit our Action Center to urge legislators to add that funding to the budget.
Child care: Following the Austin American-Statesman's investigation of lax state policy and oversight of child care, we're glad to see that a number of bills have been filed to address the issue, including SB 708 by Sen. Zaffirini to collect data on staff-to-child ratios.