Kids in Desperate Need of Action from Next Legislature, New Report Says

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Texas must fix its school-financing system for its kids to have a fighting chance, a new report says.
The 2019 Texas Legislature must act on behalf of children in the state, or risk that they will fall further behind their peers in the rest of the United States, according to a new report from Austin's Center for Public Policy Priorities. The report also emphasizes the need for an accurate census in 2020 in order to ensure that kids in Texas receive all the help from federal funds to which they are entitled.

Texas families with kids need all the help they can get, according to the report, because 20 percent of the state's 7.4 million children live below the federal poverty line. Black and Hispanic children are three times more likely to fall below the poverty line than white or Asian kids, and nearly 40 percent of all families headed by single mothers live in poverty. Despite gains made since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, more than 670,000 Texas kids still don't have health insurance.

To make sure those kids have a fighting chance to succeed in Texas, the Legislature must act on a number of fronts, according to the report. While it is unlikely that Republicans would be willing to partner with Democrats to expand Medicaid, which could cover a significant portion of the state's uninsured kids, school finance, another area singled out by the report, is an area ripe for compromise.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the presumed new speaker of the Texas House, said at his introductory press conference that his chamber will emphasize fixing Texas' school-financing system in 2019. According to the report, doing so is necessary so that the quality of schools a child attends isn't dependent on the values of surrounding properties.

"Because property wealth — and therefore school funding — varies quite a bit across Texas, the state provides funding to increase equity across districts," the report says. "However, the decline in state investment over the last decade has left local property taxes to cover the majority of public-school costs and increased inequity. This current distribution of education funding leaves students in districts with the lowest property wealth — disproportionately students of color — at a significant disadvantage in resources and outcomes."

It's essential, Democratic state Rep. Diego Bernal said Thursday in a presentation about the CPPP's report, that whatever deal gets struck in Austin does more than just use state money to lessen homeowners' property tax burdens, because it might be hard to get Republicans back to the table.

"My fear right now is that Texas will invest billions of dollars in public ed[ucation] but only for the purpose of lowering property taxes, not for improving education. Once they do that, the pressure's off and everybody walks away." — Diego Bernal

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"[In] the current climate, where people fully understand the nexus between school finance and property taxes, that's a big issue," Bernal said. "My fear right now is that Texas will invest billions of dollars in public ed[ucation] but only for the purpose of lowering property taxes, not for improving education. Once they do that, the pressure's off and everybody walks away."

The report also calls on the state to create Clean Count Committees to ensure that every Texas resident is counted in the 2020 census. For every one percent of the Texas population that isn't counted, the state could potentially lose $291 million in federal funding, according to the CPPP.

"If we don't have everybody counted, we're going to have to pay more to serve the same number of people," CPPP budget analyst Eva DeLuna Castro told the Observer earlier this year. "The formulas [for different federal programs] assume that a certain population size brings you a certain amount of money. ... Texas already has an undercount — we don't know how big it is. To make that even worse, it's just more and more money that we have to come up with here instead of getting federal help to pay for it."

There are more than 400,000 Dallas County residents on Medicaid, including more than 300,000 children. Fifty-one thousand more kids are covered by CHIP. The federal government picks up 58 percent of the cost of insuring Medicaid patients and 93 percent of the cost of insuring children on CHIP, but if fewer people who live in Texas answer their census questionnaires, the state will receive even less of the money than it should.

According to the new Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 30 percent of Texas kids already live in hard-to-count census tracts. Researchers at CPPP and around the country fear that the Trump administration's attempt to put a question about whether census respondents are U.S. citizens on the questionnaire will swell the ranks of those who aren't counted, because 25 percent of all children in Texas live with at least one non-citizen parent.

Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case about the proposed citizenship question in February.