At the beginning of this year's legislative session, Texas lawmakers were all about saving the children.
Governor Greg Abbott made reforming the overburdened and underfunded foster care system an emergency item. He urged the Lege to fully fund pre-K education. And the Legislature has just unanimously passed a bill to end caps on how many kids could receive special education services, which had been leaving an untold number of disabled kids without adequate help. Abbott is expected to sign it soon.
But in many ways, said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, the Legislature has fallen short on many of its promises. The pre-K funding is now up in the air. Funding measures in the House that would supplement Medicaid therapy services for disabled children and toddlers in the Early Childhood Intervention programs have stalled, after the Lege slashed funding for therapists by $350 million over two years in July 2015. And just Wednesday, Rubin added, the House took a perfectly good foster-care reform bill and turned it into a debate over vaccinations.
The foster care bill, which passed and heads to the Senate, limits how many kids Child Protective Services workers can supervise and requires medical evaluations for children immediately after they enter the foster care system. But Republican Representative Bill Zedler decided to tack on an amendment to restrict doctors from being able to give the foster kids vaccinations, prompting an exhaustive debate over whether vaccinations are good for public health. The amendment passed.
"There were high expectations that the Legislature would make real progress for kids this session," Rubin said. "There's been good progress in some areas — the funding for CPS workers and pay raises are important to help keep kids safe. But on the other hand, there are some bills that are moving which don't have the best interest of kids as their priority. The Legislature is at a real risk of letting Texas kids down as the clock ticks."
Here are five ways this week alone that Texas lawmakers made some questionable decisions for the kids.
1. The House passed a bill allowing adoption agencies to reject LGBT parents for religious reasons.
In a time when kids in CPS custody are sleeping in CPS offices and state GOP leaders are begging faith leaders to urge their congregants to become foster parents, those same state GOP leaders just voted to make it okay for faith-based adoption agencies to reject LGBT foster parents. The bill, HB 3859, will shield the adoption agencies from any lawsuits against them for discrimination, as long as they are rejecting gay parents based on their "sincerely held religious beliefs." In fact, as Democratic lawmakers noted, if the vague criterion "sincerely held religious beliefs" is the basis for rejection, that means Jewish parents, Muslim parents, divorced parents or anyone whom the religious organization deems incompatible with its beliefs could be turned away just because of their identities. Which leaves fewer options for foster kids in need of moms and dads.
“Discrimination in the name of religion has no place in our laws or in our state, and it certainly should not be used to harm children,” Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement. “It is shocking that the Texas House would respond to this [CPS] crisis by prioritizing the personal religious beliefs of providers over the best interests of the children in the state's care.”
The bill is now headed over to the Senate
2. The Senate voted to license immigration detention centers as childcare facilities.
In an attempt to circumvent a federal court ruling, and with hefty support from the private-prison industry, Republican senators want to keep immigrant kids in immigration detention centers with their asylum-seeking families. The Obama administration began detaining kids from Central America during the influx of 2014, prompting activists to begin referring to the detention centers as "baby jails." When a federal court in California ruled that this was illegal because, lo and behold, the lockups weren't licensed to care for kids, Texas facilities began seeking childcare licenses from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in an "emergency" procedure. That failed after a federal judge in Austin ruled that DFPS didn't have the authority to do that.
And so State Senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) filed this handy bill to find a way to give the state agency the authority. How he had to do it: by lowering licensing standards for all childcare facilities. Branding them as family residential centers, Hughes has said that, this way, families can stick together.
"Immigration detention centers are not childcare. This is a bill for a private prison company," Rubin said. "Kids are not safe in these facilities, and the state should not put its stamp of approval on them."
3. A group of GOP House reps single-handedly killed a bill that would stop "lunch shaming" in school cafeterias.
This is what lunch-shaming is: When a kid runs out of money in his lunch account, a school cafeteria worker takes away the lunch he wrongly took, throws it in the garbage and then gives him a cheese sandwich instead while all his peers watch. With wide bipartisan support, Representative Helen Giddings (D-Dallas) sought to end this practice — but instead, five staunch conservative lawmakers with the Texas Freedom Caucus killed the bill by removing it from the local and consent calendar, which is reserved for bills that are expected to pass. Giddings gave a passionate speech on the House floor after her bill was killed, saying, "What message are we sending that child? A message that you don't matter. That you have no value. We have embarrassed that child."
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4. The Senate doesn't want trans kids to compete in high school sports.
Like bully jocks in gym class who don't pick certain kids to play on their kickball team, the Texas Senate has passed a measure that might just bar transgender kids from competing at any University Interscholastic League high school sporting events. The bill would allow UIL officials to disqualify students if they take steroids, even if they are prescribed by a doctor. This would primarily affect transgender boys such as Mack Beggs, who won the girls' state wrestling championship because the UIL forced him to compete as a girl because his birth certificate has an F on it. While many parents cried that it was unfair for Beggs to compete against girls, Beggs agreed — and so did his peers. Instead of reversing UIL's birth certificate policy, however, so that Beggs could have competed against boys his size, apparently Texas lawmakers think he should just not play at all.
5. House GOP lawmakers would not agree to include protections for children in the highly controversial Senate Bill 4.
On Sunday, Governor Greg Abbott signed SB 4 on Facebook live without giving the press or the public any notice, presumably so he wouldn't have to deal with them. The bill is not just controversial because it allows police officers to question people about their immigration status while stopping them for any reason. Republicans also expressly voted to give police the power to do this to children.
During a marathon debate on the House floor full of tears and speeches, Democrats tried to tack on various amendments that would shield children from being asked about immigration papers, or would designate preschools and school events as places where police couldn't ask these questions. None passed.