This is the third in a series of posts about the decisions of the 2011 Texas Legislature and what it means for children and families. This week we look at a few highlights of new laws—some you might have heard about, plus others that flew under the radar. If any of this gets you charged up and wanting to speak out, we also have a new motivational tip posted this week over on our Mommy Mob page. It’s all about learning how these laws came to be, so you can help shape even better ones for the next time.
In one of my first posts, I talked about five big issues Texas moms would want to keep an eye on in the 2011 state legislature. Since then, lawmakers filed almost 6,000 bills, hundreds having to do with kids. That includes the one that will probably affect your family life the most—the disappointing budget Eileen mentioned last week, which could push schools, health programs, and more backwards in Texas.
Still, there were other developments, including laws that could mean a step in the right direction for children, none of which cost the state a thing. You’re invited to come to a free recap of the 2011 session, an event Wednesday at the Capitol, from 10 a.m-noon. I got a sneak preview of the content, and put together this list of 20 highlights of the new laws for kids.
1. The Corporal-Punishment-Plus Law: Rep. Alma Allen’s HB 359 didn’t quite meet her goal of ending corporal punishment. AISD banned it long ago, but tens of thousands of Texas kids still get paddled at school. The new law allows parents in districts with corporal punishment to opt their kid out of it (you have to send a letter every school year). Reps. Wendy Davis and Helen Giddings added good stuff to this bill with measures banning criminal citations for elementary school kids who act up in class, and requiring school resource officers to report when they use restraints on children with special needs—two ugly trends involving cops on campus, which, hopefully, you’ll be seeing less of moving forward.
2. & 3. The Teaching-Kids-about-Money Laws: Who says math and social studies can’t have real-world value? Austin’s own Sen. Kirk Watson authored SB 290 which will get principles of financial literacy into the elementary and math curriculum, and Rep. Dan Branch sponsored HB 34 so that high schoolers starting in 2013 get money-management lessons in economics class, including how to pay for college.
4. The Letting-More-Babies-Be-Born-On-Time Law: A group of Austin hospitals have led the way in ending a bad practice for newborns and moms: doctors scheduling deliveries too early in a pregnancy, without any medical reason. Early-and-unnecessary c-sections and inductions are officially opposed by all the big medical associations, but they happen a lot, and it’s led to a spike in premature babies. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst filed HB 1983, which encourages hospitals and doctors to find ways to end this practice, as Seton Hospitals did here in town. The bill also puts doctors on notice that one of the biggest funders of hospital deliveries—the state of Texas—is watching and won’t be paying for early deliveries, unless there’s a medical cause.
5. & 6. The Removing-Uncertainty-for-Class-Clowns Laws: How furious would you be if your child were expelled or sent to juvenile court over reading a book during math class? That was the sort of thing that happened when schools were interpreting for themselves what amounted to “serious or persistent” misbehavior in disciplinary alternative education programs. An amendment by Rep. Scott Hochberg to Rep. Strama’s HB 968 spelled it out more clearly, so fewer kids will be shuffled onto the streets or off to jail over nothing. Another bill, HB 350 by Rep. Armando Walle, will prevent children criminally ticketed at school for minor stuff from going into debt over fines: instead, courts will have to sentence them to community service or tutoring.
7. The Exercise-Really-DOES-Matter Law: Every year in school, your child brings home “FitnessGram” results. But what do you do with that info? Jane Nelson’s SB 226 (Nelson) gives a clue. Parents will be able to see fitness results in context, including whether your school as a whole seems to be making kids’ healthier—and what the effect is on academic performance.
8. The Standing-Up-to-Bullies Law: Rep. Diane Patrick’s HB 1942 will create better school policies to prevent bullying and respond when it happens. Teachers, principles, and even parents will be able to get trained in how to help bullying victims. Unfortunately, the bill lets schools transfer bullies to other campuses—which only moves, rather than fixes, the problem in most cases. Expect another round of anti-bullying legislation in 2013 to address that one.
9. The Please-Don’t-Let-My-Teen-Text-Racy-Photos-of-Herself Law: If your child does start “sexting,” the School Safety Centers will offer a new program pointing out that it’s a bad idea, thanks to Sen. Watson’s SB 407. Media have reported that the bill also removes the possibility that kids who pull this stunt unwittingly wind up on the sex-offender registry for life. What they haven’t reported is that the bill creates a lot of new categories of “sexting” misdemeanors. That means cops may be more likely to press charges than before.
10. The Wait-We-Didn’t-ALREADY-Have-Standards-for-the-People-Who-Train-Our-Child-Care-Workers? Law: Not so much. Thus, the need for Sen. Royce West’s SB 265.
11.-16. The (Surprise) Texas-Still-Has-Some-Compassion-Left Laws: Just when you thought our state somehow relished kicking the people who are poor or have challenges, along come these positive measures:
- Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for kids 10 and older. Representative Garnet Coleman’s HB 1386 allows schools to set up effective suicide-prevention programs.
- Texas used to be all about locking up kids who act out. Now we are a state in the business of getting more of them help, like substance abuse treatment and mental health services, under Sen. John Whitmire’s SB 653. That bill abolishes the old, scandal-ridden TYC and sets up a gentler new Texas Juvenile Justice Department in its place.
- Many children get 1-2 good meals a day during the school year thanks to the free and reduced-price lunch program. That option goes away in the summer, but Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr.’s, SB 89, improves those children’s access to good food by strengthening the summer nutrition program.
- One of the great shames of our country is that in 2011, big racial disparities still exist in everything from our schools to medical care to the courts. Sen. Royce West’s SB 501 gets Texas’ top state agency leaders to look this problem in the eye when it comes to children. A new official state council will be charged with working to close the gaps.
- Kids in Child Protective Services’ care do better when they can stay with someone they know, during the official investigation of child abuse or neglect by their parents. Sen. Carlos Uresti’s SB 993 improves the chances that a child in a situation like that will be placed safely with another relative.
- The R word is officially off-limits for the state, thanks to Rep. Vicki Truitt’s HB 1418, calling for respectful language when it comes to individuals with disabilities
17.-19. The Children-Are-Victims-Not-Prostitutes Laws: Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s SB 24 and Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s HB 2015 and HB 3000 are just three of a half-dozen bills making the very sad problems of human trafficking and child prostitution something our state is better able to respond to.
20. The It’s-Better-than-Nothing-Predatory-Lending Regulation: If you’ve ever dealt with the high debt of a short-term family loan or you read on our Mommy Mob page about how payday lenders target single moms, you may have been following all the bills to put some standards on this industry. The bill that passed, Rep. Truitt’s HB 2592, doesn’t go far enough but it is the first time the industry has ever been regulated, so it’s a welcome change.
- Those of you home-bakers who were following the “bakers’ bill,” which would make bake sales and the sale of items from a home-kitchen legal at last, will be happy to know SB 81 passed, too!
Written by: Christine Sinatra