This pandemic is hard on all Texans — including kids. So now that the state legislative session is gearing up, children are counting on legislators to give them the best chance at recovery.
Before COVID, legislators were about to launch interim hearings on several issues focused on child well-being, including health care, education and foster care. Since then, COVID exacerbated and revealed the depths of those challenges — which could linger much longer than the pandemic unless the Legislature takes action now. And the clock is ticking on time-sensitive policy issues for many kids: infants and toddlers who won’t get a second chance at healthy early childhood brain development, young students who have had trouble learning to read during virtual school, or kids at risk of abuse or suicide.
Let’s start with health care. The pandemic showed that quality, affordable health care must be available to all Texans, including families with jobs in child care, restaurants, grocery stores, or other low-wage sectors that often don’t provide health insurance. To support healthy babies and moms, legislators should extend Medicaid health insurance to moms for a full year after pregnancy, building on legislators’ work creating the Healthy Texas Women Plus program last session. Lawmakers can also support healthy kids by ensuring Medicaid insurance for children of low-wage workers lasts for 12 straight months.
To support healthy Texans, legislators should also fully fund health and human services, including the women’s health services facing proposed state cuts, under-funded Early Childhood Intervention services for toddlers with disabilities, and staff to help kids and pregnant women enroll in health insurance. To do that during a revenue shortfall, legislators can tap the rainy day fund, federal COVID relief funds, and federal Medicaid expansion dollars. Yes, with COVID reshaping the landscape, it’s time to pass Medicaid expansion to shore up the state budget, pump up our economy, and connect more workers with health care.
Beyond health care, the pandemic has also disrupted student learning. To help students get on track, legislators should fully fund education — keeping the commitments they made last session — even as enrollment dips due to the pandemic. To ensure students can concentrate on academics after this year of prolonged stress and trauma, the Legislature should ensure school districts can implement the strong student mental health steps passed last session.
Given how difficult virtual learning has been for younger students, legislators should pay special attention to pre-k, other early grades, and high-quality child care. For younger English Learners in particular, learning loss and social isolation imposed by the pandemic pose challenges to reaching the goal of becoming strong readers by third grade. Among other steps, Texas should develop a strategic plan for supporting young English learners and expand use of the Dual Language Immersion model endorsed by the Legislature last session.
Finally, the state’s CPS system — particularly foster care — is back in the headlines. After CPS removes children from unsafe homes, many are stuck sleeping in CPS offices or sub-standard group homes. Why? There was already a shortage of safe, nurturing foster homes and facilities, and then COVID further slashed the supply. Meanwhile, as families face more hardships during COVID, experts worry that abuse and neglect are rising.
So the Legislature should invest in preventing child abuse and strengthening families — in part by leveraging the federal Family First Act — to keep more kids safely with their parents and out of foster care when appropriate. To protect and support kids who do enter foster care, legislators should boost oversight and standards for facilities, make sure we have enough maternity homes for pregnant youth in foster care, and give foster teens and tweens in institutions the option of living with a highly trained family through “Treatment Foster Family Care.”
As the Legislature goes into session, nearly a year into the pandemic, it's time to focus on kids. They can’t wait any longer.
Rubin is CEO of Texans Care for Children.