Three Democrats in the Texas House representing the Austin area – state Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Donna Howard and Eddie Rodriguez – joined The Texas Tribune on Monday for a conversation on the 85th Legislative Session, the 2018 elections and their potential impact on Austin. Here are the issues that dominated the conversation:
Immigration laws. Senate Bill 4, passed during last year’s legislative session, allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest. Rodriguez argued the SB 4 is bad for public safety, as it turned local law enforcement, in effect, into “federal agents.”
If Texans are afraid to go to law enforcement for fear of deportation when they are a victim of a crime or a witness to one, Rodriguez said, “that’s bad for the entire community, not just the immigrant community.”
Special education. A recent federal report found Texas effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized school districts to deny services to eligible students.
Audience members were eager to discuss the future of special education in Texas. Howard said the school districts had a role in that issue, but are also subject to what the Texas Education Agency tells them to do.
“There’s enough blame to go around here for the legislature, for TEA, for somehow us allowing these children to fall through the cracks,” Howard said.
Hinojosa added that special education is something that affects all school districts regardless of size, so pursuing a strategy with more funding for special education students would “hit everyone equally.”
Funding for public education. Hinojosa said the Texas House and Senate were fundamentally at odds last year over the state’s role in public education funding. She pointed to the version of House Bill 21 which passed the House, which would have put $1.8 billion into public schools, as a step in the right direction for school finance. But the Senate stripped out $1.5 billion of new funding from the bill as well as reforms to the school funding formulas.
“I was so disappointed that the House had backed off of its strong stance in support of our public schools and instead passed a bill that chose certain kids to give more money to,” Hinojosa said. “And it excluded urban kids.”
Howard said Austin schools did not benefit from legislation that eventually passed in a special session held over the summer. State leaders have been unwilling to hold honest conversations about what the state needs to do to adequately fund public schools, she said.