Act to Address the Coronavirus Pandemic’s Negative Impact on Young Texans (2021 Legislative Priorities)
A more in-depth discussion can be found in Texas Appleseed’s newly-published Education Transformed Report
As Americans, we are enduring a time of unprecedented struggle in the midst of an extraordinary crisis that has ignited a fire to fight for change. One of the challenges this crisis has exposed is the deep inequity in K-12 education. This moment thus requires a transformation in K-12 education: the legislature must acknowledge how the pandemic exacerbated so many social ills within our society, prioritize action, and activate a response that is rooted in racial and social justice. This will produce numerous positive benefits for schoolchildren across Texas, who will eventually return to their campuses. The Texas Legislature should move forward bills that create a robust system of multi-tiered supports that increase funding for the hiring of mental health professionals, ban the use of exclusionary discipline (overly punitive measures to address age-appropriate and routine school behaviors), encourage the use of restorative practices, and reimagine school safety outside of policing. Further, the Legislature should exclude school policing from the approved uses for any state funding for schools. During this moment in American history, it is important to consider the whole child and the impact that the events of 2020 have had on the lives of our school children.
The events that began in March of 2020 with continued impacts still today necessitate a great deal of healing for young people and their communities. As kids return to their classrooms, they do so with tremendous pressure weighing down on them. Like everyone who will survive the coronavirus pandemic, young people may struggle to cope with the losses they have experienced, the expectations placed on them, and adverse impacts they continue to navigate. In response, the Legislature should direct funds to school districts to fully implement and execute positive behavioral interventions and supports, social emotional learning, and multi-tiered systems of support.
During the summer of 2020, some members of the Dallas ISD Board of Trustees entertained the bold idea of expanding the preK-2nd grade suspension ban to a preK-12th grade suspension ban for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter of support to the Board of Trustees, we highlighted that, according to the Texas Education Agency, 6,802 Black students and 5,906 Latinx students were suspended out-of-school from DISD during the 2018-19 school year, as compared to only 363 white students. Our 2017-18 data report, the State of School Discipline in Texas, showed that the vast majority of punishments in Texas schools (87%) are "discretionary" — for violations of a school district's Student Code of Conduct, not for more serious offenses that require punishment under the law. Further, experts have established that children of color are more likely than their peers to be punished, even though they are not more likely to misbehave. Exclusionary discipline remains a grave civil rights violation for so many children across Texas, especially Black and Brown children, LGBTQ young people, and kids with disabilities. The time is long overdue for us to end these discriminatory, harmful disciplinary practices. Thankfully, the conversation concerning a preK-12 suspension ban is moving forward in Dallas ISD this spring, and, optimally, that process will prove to be instructive for the Texas Legislature.
The data clearly show that school policing is the education-related spending priority in Texas from year to year. During the 2019-20 school year, the Houston ISD Police Department received over $10 million in operating funds from Houston ISD. What’s interesting, in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, all indices point to the fact that school police officers across Texas have continued to receive their full salaries and benefits, even as brick and mortar schools are largely empty. The best justification that many district officials seem to offer, as their students and their families suffer financially, is that school police officers are necessary to patrol meal distribution sites. This steady funding for school policing is undoubtedly hard for young Texans to process as they witnessed the large social movements in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020. That, coupled with the knowledge that, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, far too many young Texans faced violence at the hands of school police officers on their campuses, it is clear that a drastic change in spending is critical at this moment.
Equally as alarming is the deficit in counselors and mental health professionals available on campuses, in the 2017-18 school year, 155 Texas school districts (13%) reported having zero counselors or mental health professionals. Just as the coronavirus pandemic is a once-in-a-century global health crisis, the 87th Legislative Session in Texas presents an unparalleled opportunity to move away from spending on school policing and increase investments in mental health support services for young people. Such action is one necessary step of many to make young people and their communities fully whole in the wake of the pandemic. The Texas Legislature stands in a good position to make this a reality through the legislation it produces in the next several weeks.