Today is about more than the traditional feast – it’s about giving thanks. As I count my blessings today, the honor of serving as the State Senator from District 13 is close to the top. I want to thank my constituents, family, colleagues, and staff for making my time in public service meaningful in so many ways.
I pledge to continue fighting for the families of District 13 to make Texas a great place to live, work, and raise a family. Texans deserve a state that gives its residents a fair shot at a good-paying job to support their family, offers all children access to quality educational opportunities, and provides every family access to affordable and quality health care.
I wish you and your loved ones a Happy Thanksgiving.
Time for schools to end suspension-first mindset
This ran as an op-ed in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle. Click here to view it on the Chronicle’s website.
Before they know the ABCs or how to tie their own shoes, thousands of four-year-olds in Texas are suspended from school each year, forced out of the classroom and denied the opportunity to learn.
A report issued this month by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed brought the issue into focus: more than 88,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students in Texas in the 2013-14 school year alone.
Recently, the Houston ISD Board of Education voted on a proposed rule change that would have ended suspensions for children in second grade and younger, except as required by law, and limited removals for third through fifth graders. Teachers would still have the ability under state law to remove a student from the classroom for repeated or seriously disruptive behaviors. HISD’s proposal also provided funds and training for educators in proven, alternative discipline methods that improve classroom safety and educational opportunities for all students.
A vote in favor of the proposal would have solidified HISD’s position as a leader in positive, forward-thinking education and school safety policies.
Unfortunately, the Board rejected the full proposal and instead supported a weakened version that effectively maintains the status quo for how our schools approach suspending our youngest children.
Unwarranted suspensions and other removals from school hurt students. When children, particularly young children, are arbitrarily suspended from school, they miss important learning and socializing time with their teachers and peers, they learn that the way to handle conflict is to push it away and ignore it, and they begin to believe they are bad children who do not deserve help. They realize that whenever they want a day off of school, they simply act out until they get sent home. The consequence can therefore reinforce the bad behavior the school is actually trying to prevent.
Suspensions also don’t improve classroom outcomes for the rest of the students. An American Psychological Association task force points out that research shows a “negative relationship between the use of school suspension … and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status.”
Out-of-school suspensions often have the greatest impact on Texas’ working families. When a young child is sent home, someone must be there to watch him or her. Parents are forced to take time off of work and put their jobs in jeopardy. Stories of family members losing their jobs because a young student is suspended are regrettably not that rare.
If studies indicated that suspending our youngest students resulted in improved outcomes, it would make sense to continue with the status quo. But research shows the opposite, as classroom removals for young children can lead to even more significant problems down the road. Studies show that early removals increase the likelihood of suspensions in higher grades, which then increase the odds of being held back a grade, dropping out of school altogether, and entering the juvenile justice system.
What’s more, Texas Appleseed’s research shows classroom removals are issued disproportionately to certain groups of students. Black children, boys, and students who receive special education services are punished at disproportionately higher rates compared to their peers, but those rates are most alarming for black students. Black children make up 26 percent of students in HISD but represent 67 percent of pre-k out-of-school suspensions. Seventy percent of the pre-k through second graders suspended in HISD are black boys.
Fortunately, there are proven, evidence-based alternatives to a system over reliant on out-of-school suspensions. HISD’s proposal includes a robust, tiered system of behavioral interventions that can be used as alternatives to classroom removals. A staff of twenty-five trainers and sixty school psychologists would be trained in research-based methodologies, which they would then pass along to teachers, staff, and administrators at all HISD elementary schools. Behavioral interventionists would be available to provide further assistance and referrals to external agencies to any campuses that request them.
Sometimes opportunities to make sweeping change can seem rare. But this instance provides our community a unique chance to adapt our schools’ discipline policies in a way that will help the youngest students stay in the classroom. I remain hopeful that at the upcoming December meeting the Houston ISD Board of Education will support a ban on out-of-school suspensions for the district’s youngest children.
Now is the time to plan for climate change
The science is clear: the world is getting hotter. Scientists announced that 2014 was the hottest year on record, and 2001-10 was the hottest decade on record. There is convincing evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been exacerbated by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use. And even if there’s disagreement about what’s causing the increased heat, you must have spent too much time in the sun to not think it’s getting hotter. So Texas has to plan for this hotter future.
For the past four sessions, I’ve filed legislation to require 12 state agencies to produce climate adaptation plans every four years assessing each agency’s role with respect to climate change. Each climate adaptation plan must include: an assessment of vulnerability; how existing programs will be impacted; specific mitigation steps; budget impacts of mitigation; potential funding sources for mitigation steps; a statewide strategy to monitor the continuing effects of climate change; and a written statement by the Texas state climatologist regarding the adequacy of the scientific basis of the plan.
The bills haven’t passed, but I pledge to continue the fight. Plain and simple, it’s a bad business practice to not manage risk and uncertainty. With millions of lives and billions of dollars relying on sound state policies, the lack of risk mitigation around climate change exacerbates future economic uncertainty and sets the state up for potentially destructive surprises.
Organizations of all kinds – whether in the public, private, or non-profit sectors – have formalized planning processes to mitigate climate change impacts because planning is a prudent business practice. Adaptation plans would give Texas state agencies a roadmap to contend with unknown future climate conditions and help minimize their impact.
Click here to read a recent Houston Chronicle article on my efforts at the Capitol.
Do you have health insurance?
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act – or “Obamacare” – millions of uninsured Americans now have access to new health insurance options through a Health Insurance Marketplace at www.healthcare.gov. This is great news for Texas, as our state has the highest uninsured rate in the nation with nearly one in five lacking coverage – around 5 million people. In Harris County, almost 1 in 3 people are without health insurance coverage.
Beyond the benefit for my constituents and community, I’m personally grateful for Obamacare, as it has allowed my oldest daughter, Nicole, to get health insurance while she attends school in New York. She’s more than 26 years old and is no longer able to be covered under my health care plan.
If you don’t have health insurance, you now have an opportunity to enroll in coverage, as the marketplace opened again on November 1, 2015. We will all get sick at some point in time, and access to health insurance is a critical part of ensuring that individuals and families are healthy and successful. Plus, if you are eligible and don’t enroll in coverage by January 31st, you might have to pay a fine at tax time of $695 dollars per person or 2.5% of your income, whichever is more.
Many people are able to get a plan that works for them and is not too expensive because financial help is available for individuals who make between $11,670-$46,680 and between $23,850-$95,400 for a family of four.
According to estimates for Houston, a 27 year old with an income of $25,000 might be able to purchase coverage with assistance for as a low as $81 per month. A family of four with an income of $50,000 may be able to get coverage for $52 per month after tax credits.
v>These plans purchased on the exchange will have new consumer protections and cover all ten essential benefits such as emergency services, prescriptions drugs, and preventive care – ensuring consumers get comprehensive coverage instead of a bare bones policy.
Information about these new health insurance plans, where to get in-person assistance, and how to apply for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can be found at www.healthcare.gov or by calling 1-800-318-2596. Remember, the deadline for enrolling is January 31, 2016.