School starts next week for most Texas students. But for more than 60 Dallas child advocacy experts, the homework has already begun. They met this week for a look at a Texas Legislature report card on children’s issues, and to outline assignments for the next legislative session.
Bob Sanborn, president of the nonprofit group Children at Risk moderated the crowded session on Texas kids and how they fared in the 2015 Legislative session.
“So we have about 6 million school children," Sanborn said. "Sixty percent of them are low-income.”
Sanborn says those children require a helping hand if they are to be healthy, do well in school and launch successfully into college or the workforce.
Susan Hoff, chief strategy officer at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, says some good things happened for kids in the last legislative session, including more money for pre-K programs. But she says there’s more to do for the youngest Texans.
“I think focusing on children birth to 3 is so important," Hoff said. "I am concerned that in a couple of years we’re going to see kids getting to pre-K that are not ready for pre-K. We need to focus on those first three years.”
And get more pre-K teachers. Hoff also says if all 3-year-old Texas children eligible for pre-K showed up, the state would be short about 2,000 teachers. She was disappointed that a bill to allow community colleges to offer a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education failed in the 84th Legislative session.
State lawmakers did approve money for training reading and math teachers, reinstating the programs cut in 2011, and for expansion of the school telemedicine program that allows school nurses to videoconference with doctors and provide medical care for some students who might otherwise go without.
Bob Sanborn, with Children at Risk, says parents got some attention at the state capitol.
“Making sure that parents are part of the solution but that they have tools," Sanborn said. "We can’t just say a parent needs to do a good job. We need to give them tools to be better parents. We’re starting to do that.”
Lawmakers added money to expand social worker home visits to help families at risk for domestic violence, child abuse and teen pregnancy. The idea is to produce healthy outcomes for children by early intervention and parental education.
Despite the progress on children’s issues, Earnestine Townsend, with the North Texas Region 10 Education Service Center, says there’s so much more to do.
“I am so concerned that the most at risk children are not receiving, and will not be receiving the services that they truly need," Townsend said. "You know the stakes are high.”
Children at Risk officials say school financing will likely be the marquee children’s issue at the legislature in 2017. And they say it could be a budget-cutting session if oil prices continue to lag.