Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What to Brace for as Texas Embarks on Another Season of Legislative Lunacy

Posted By and on Tue, Jan 10, 2017 at 6:30 AM

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Getting Schooled

Cutting kids out of special education. Financing charter schools. Changing the state’s grading system.

There are sweeping, large-scale education issues expected to take center stage this session — enough to overwhelm any state legislator. That’s why state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat from San Antonio, decided to spend 2016 taking a more granular look at the education system within the manageable boundaries of his own San Antonio district.

After visiting each of the 55 public schools in his largely-northside district — home to San Antonio ISD, North East ISD and Northside ISD — Bernal kept running into a few unique issues. They’ve inspired a bill to make it easier for hungry kids to access leftover cafeteria food, one that would allow school districts the option of using leftover textbook funds on new tutor hires, and another that would stop forcing special education students to retake standardized tests after failing the first time.

While these are obviously minor fixes eclipsed by the state’s looming public school woes, Bernal says the point is that he’s confident each of his education bills will attract bipartisan support — which is key to passing anything in the majority-conservative chamber. “The only way Democrats can pass anything in the House is to convince 26 Representatives to join them,” he said. “The great thing about education is that it’s about kids. Everyone wants to fight for kids.”
Which doesn’t mean Bernal doesn’t have a pie-in-the-sky progressive bill.

Bernal’s House Bill 353 would guarantee behavioral health counseling to any school where 50 percent or more of its students are “socially or economic disadvantaged, in the foster care system, or homeless.” While Bernal’s doubtful his conservative counterparts will want to use the state budget on new counselors, he knows it’s financially possible. “The money is there,” he said.

“The budget is just a list of priorities. And this isn’t a priority for many Republicans.”

As for the bigger education issues on the docket, Bernal said he’s waiting until legislators can realistically get involved. The state battle over school funding has done little to address the gaping financial inequities between schools located in wealthy and lower-income areas. Lawmakers had been waiting to see if the Texas Supreme Court might force reforms; instead, the justices punted, admitting the state’s public school finance system desperately needs “top-to-bottom reforms” but is nonetheless constitutional.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Gov. Patrick has made clear his intention to move public school dollars to semi-private charter schools this coming session — “school choice,” as advocates call it, that Patrick says will give poorer kids the opportunity to attend higher-performing private schools.

Bernal says he’s planning on helping other lawmakers push certain bills that have broad public support – like making sure the state education agency, as recently discovered by a searing Houston Chronicle investigation, can never again arbitrarily kick tens of thousands of disabled kids out of state public school special ed programs. Otherwise, he says he’s intent on pushing small-scale, local issues where teachers’ opinions take precedent.

“I want to focus on what our educators are saying, what they’re concerned about,” he said. “Not what political parties are saying.” — AZ

Social Distortion

It seems two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions made since Texas’ last session — on marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights — only inflamed some of Texas’ social conservative culture warriors ahead of the 2017 session.

Yes, this year some state GOP leaders intend on rolling back local nondiscrimination ordinances, allowing health providers to turn away transgender patients, and further punishing doctors who perform abortions.

Expect state Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, to be in the middle of the fight. Campbell, has never hid her far-right wing perspective on state social issues since she joined the legislature in 2013. In fact, Campbell, an ER doctor, was the local cheerleader for House Bill 2, a law that shuttered dozens of the state’s abortion clinics with burdensome, medically-unnecessary regulations that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in June.

And while she’s kept relatively quiet about the state’s fetal burial rule — a law forcing abortion clinics to cremate and bury fetal remains, which is now facing a lawsuit — Campbell has filed a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks fertilization based on a non-medical belief that fetuses can feel pain by that point. Other legislation on her list would force people applying for unemployment benefits to take a drug test, allow people to bring a handgun to church or an amusement park, and block doctors who work at abortion facilities from teaching sex education courses.

She’s also resurrecting a 2013 bill to ban the use of foreign laws in Texas courts, yet another thinly-veiled anti-Sharia law. The author of her bill’s House counterpart, Republican Dan Flynn of Canton, has made clear the legislation is meant to protect Christian Texans, telling his supporters it will stop the liberal crusade to turn the country into “an amorphous multicultural society.” These bills join several other GOP efforts to blur the line between church and state. Another Senate bill would block the state from doing business with any company or group that's pledged to divest from and boycott Israeli companies over the government's treatment of Palestinians — because, according to the bill's author, the country helped create Christianity.

Campbell has also used “religious freedom” as an excuse to support Lieutenant Gov. Patrick’s “privacy bill” that would block trans people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. To Campbell, it’s all about “keep[ing] men out of safe spaces for girls.” She doesn’t care that many in the local tourism industry are terrified by the North Carolina-style bill, which could ultimately cost San Antonio the 2018 NCAA Final Four.

“I’d like to see Texas values not be hijacked for the sake of football or basketball,” she told the Texas Tribune in December. “I’m not worried about that.” — AZ



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