A lot of American children also happen to be Texan, so nearly one-tenth of the future U.S. workforce hails from Texas. We have a lot of kids, a lot of human potential, entrusted to us here. So our state’s choices — about whether to improve educational opportunities, for example, or to support a healthy start for children — decides, in no small measure, our nation’s future.
It was with some alarm then that observers watched two years ago, as Texas lawmakers gutted funding for public schools and other systems that children count on. We’re a growing state, adding with each new school year between 75,000-95,000 more kids who need an education. Yet lawmakers cut more than $5 billion in public school funding in 2011 and ignored student population growth.
Other kids lost services and supports, too, due to cuts: babies showing signs of developmental delays, children with serious health conditions, preschoolers just starting to learn. Lawmakers cut almost in half our public efforts to prevent child abuse and chronic diseases. They decimated family planning and other women’s preventive health services.
Now that 2013’s legislative session and special session have ended, things are better than they were then.
For mothers and for babies, the 83rd Legislature substantially restored resources for services that lead women to have healthier pregnancies — and fewer unplanned ones. State leaders made it possible, too, for those infants and toddlers with disabilities and delays to get more of the help they need. They put back investments in preventing and investigating child abuse. Mental health, including children’s mental health, became more of a priority than ever before. And the state restored $3.4 billion for public education.
These were vital investments, and they were just part of what went right. Legislators also put rules on the books to help more kids get ahead.
One new law, SB 376, tackles child hunger by making a healthy breakfast available to every student in high-poverty schools. Another with the same number on the House side, HB 376 by Austin’s Rep. Mark Strama, a Democrat, will make it easier to deliver quality child care for kids whose working parents need help paying for day care.
Bills to end the trend of ticketing school children for misbehaving in class, to train teachers better so they can work effectively with kids who have mental health challenges, to help youth leaving the foster care system begin adulthood with a little extra help — all passed into law. And all will make a real difference, not just for the kids who get treated better by adults as a result, but for Texas as a whole. In communities statewide, we’ll have more young people who feel engaged, supported and ready to go out and succeed.
Doing less of what doesn’t work in planning for our future workforce and more of what does sounds like a pretty good approach to lawmaking. Still, state leaders can and must go further.
First, elected officials should commit to meeting real needs and keeping up with growth. Resources for schools, health care and services could have been fully restored to their pre-2011 level, based on the money Texas had on hand. They weren’t. Perhaps you noticed a more-than-$1-billion gap remaining in what Texas provides for public education? Well, lawmakers passed over $1 billion in new tax cuts for businesses this year.
In other words, instead of using the resources Texas had to restore fully our support for families or schools, lawmakers handed industries yet another break.
Second, Texas could be a lot more open to helping not just kids but the people who shape children’s lives: their families. But lawmakers opted against a health coverage option for an estimated 700,000 lower-income parents. Helping those parents, as accepting federal funding for Medicaid expansion would have done, would have brought more children greater financial security, better health and peace of mind at home.Lawmakers accomplished a lot this session, but until they make real strides in adequate funding for public services, our state will continue to fall short. More work remains for Texas to live up to the full potential this state has to offer for our nation’s future.
Garcia is chief executive officer for Texans Care for Children.txchildren.org