July 3, 2018
TACS Legislative Update
The House Public Education Committee held all-day hearings on Wednesday, June 27th, and Thursday, June 28th. The first hearing was about school security and the second was a joint meeting with the House Committee on Public Health focusing on children’s mental health. While there was some discussion of safety and security, the bulk of testimony both days focused on mental health. Many successful programs were discussed including: mental health first aid, social and emotional learning, character plus and kindness training, Communities in Schools, trauma counseling, and the need for a telephone number for students to call anonymously to report concerns about themselves and peers.
There were lengthy discussions of the recommended ratios of counselors to students, the lack of adequate numbers of social workers and school psychologists, and the insufficient funding for districts to meet those recommended ratios. Representative Ken King explained that many rural districts can’t afford counselors, and the ones they do have are serving double duty as testing coordinators. He urged his peers not to force districts to hire marshalls when they can’t even afford counselors. Other witnesses and friendly legislators acknowledged the need for districts to have flexibility in implementing whatever programs are recommended.
Humble ISD Superintendent, Dr. Elizabeth Fagan, explained that the problem starts early since Texas has pushed 1st grade learning into pre-school and reduced time for teaching important social skills early on. Dr. Pam Wells, Executive Director of Region 4 ESC, talked about the importance of developing a behavioral support network that supports positive behavior, includes restorative practices, and connects the mental health supports necessary to teach social and emotional learning and addresses the disparities that affect students at various income levels disproportionately.
Dr. Michelle Kinder, Executive Director of the Momentous Institute, urged the committee to focus on the emotional success of our students as well as their academic success. She, like many others, talked about how students are feeling more and more isolated and disconnected and that in more nurturing and communal environments, it is easier to develop safe relationships which enable a child’s nervous system to self-regulate. She explained that students and educators are locked in “stress sets” of standardized test scores with a sole focus on academic success, which is fueling mental health problems that are contributing to increased numbers of suicide and mass shootings. Many witnesses echoed the need for more counselors, and also the need for mental health tools to be in the hands of everyone in the building.
One witness from Thursday’s hearing compared our current approach to mental health to how we used to deal with cancer. Years ago, by the time someone was diagnosed with cancer, it was often too late to save him or her. Now, we know certain things are likely to cause some cancers, and we do screenings to catch it early enough to intervene and hopefully save the person’s life. His point was that Texas should invest in programs that teach healthy and positive behaviors early on, and have a network in place to screen for signs of mental health problems. Yes, we also need funding for safety and security measures, but several witnesses stated that 60% of our attention should be on mental health and about 40% on safety and security. Turning schools into prisons can further raise anxiety in students and make the problem worse.
The prior weekend, on June 23rd, the TACS legislative committee, and the TACS governmental relations team met to work on the TACS legislative agenda for the upcoming legislative session. We talked about priorities for TACS districts in the areas of school finance, assessment and accountability, school safety and security, TRS, ESCs, and the UIL. At the meeting, Lloyd Graham, superintendent of La Porte ISD, honed in on an underlying stress that would be alluded to in the hearings later in the week. He used some big words – allostasis and allostatic load. I had to look them up! “Allostatic load represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating neural or neuroendocrine response that results from repeated chronic stress.” To translate – the long-term stress on teachers and students that has resulted from the underfunding of our schools and the over-focusing on high-stakes standardized tests is contributing to the mental health problems and related safety and security concerns in our schools.
In conclusion, there are many great programs out there that could help Texas students and educators. We need more counselors and they need to be freed from testing duty to actually counsel students. We need to focus on (and value) the whole child and not just their test scores. Of course, counselors and successful programs and security measures all cost money. Representative Alma Allen, long-time member of the House Public Education Committee hit the nail on the head Wednesday when she yelled out “It’s time for Texas to fund public education!” This would be the first and most vital step toward healing what ails public schools, educators, and students.
Thank you for your tireless work educating each and every child that walks in your door. Have a happy and restful 4th of July!
TACS Governmental Relations
Past Legislative Updates