Texas House forms Early Childhood Caucus to better support kids and families

Texas House forms Early Childhood Caucus to better support kids and families

Citing a need to boost support for Texas’ youngest kids and families, a bipartisan group of legislators said Thursday that they will champion changes that better lay a foundation for children’s success.

The lawmakers announced a new Early Childhood Caucus in the House that will promote wide-ranging legislation and policy positions they say will go far beyond the traditional focus on pre-kindergarten. The representatives said they want to get to work improving kids’ lives early, starting before they’re born.

“We don’t want to talk just about education, although education is important,” said caucus chairman Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio. “We want to talk about all the things that inform what’s important to the development of these young children, as well as their parents.”

The Legislature is considering several bills that would improve access to high-quality childcare, better support young children learning English and expand health insurance options for infants and new mothers.

The caucus -- which has not outlined any specific priority bills -- is made up of 32 members, including Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Garland, who serves as vice-chairwoman. The bipartisan group was cheered by children’s advocates.

“It’s safe to say that any legislation that promotes health and wellness and education that effects early childhood or pregnant mothers is a priority,” Bernal said.

Button said her committee has already taken action on several childcare-related bills.

“We’re really excited to see so many legislators committed to ensuring that our state policies give kids a strong start in life,” said David Feigen, early childhood policy associate at Texans Care for Children, in a statement. “Smart public policies are critical to support infants and toddlers during this critical period of rapid brain development.”

The Legislature passed a landmark school finance bill last session, which devoted additional money for pre-K and mandated that all districts offer full-day classes for eligible 4-year-olds.

But caucus members say there’s still work to be done, specifically around what happens before a child is eligible to enter formalized school, which sets the foundation for a child’s future.

“The first five years of a child’s life -- really those first three years, those first 1,000 days -- impacts a child’s economic outcomes, their health outcomes, their educational outcomes,” said caucus treasurer Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock. “Our state is virtually nowhere to be seen during that prime time of child development.”

Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, said it’s vital that the work the caucus pursues is multifaceted.

“We can’t work on kids’ issues in silos. Kids don’t live in silos. Their parents don’t live in silos,” she said. “We can pursue incredible childcare legislation, but if we’re not also working on the uninsured rate, or child hunger or access to high-quality pre-K, we won’t see the outcomes we want for kids.”

One in five Texas children lives in poverty, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, and many families lack access to affordable, high-quality care for their young kids.

Advocates say that establishing early childhood care as a focus of this caucus sends a powerful message, especially during a legislative session dominated by questions of COVID-19 and winter storm recovery.

“It’s such a strange session,” Bernal said. “It would be a mistake, honestly, for us to pick just one [legislative priority.]”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, The Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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