Sometimes, it seems as if our state government – a majority of our leaders, anyway — cares more about the score a kid makes on the STAAR test than whether that child had anything to eat before coming to campus that morning, had a safe place to sleep the night before or was even healthy enough to be in school.
Am I exaggerating? Well, consider the fact that, beginning with the third grade, Texas school children and their teachers are hammered not only with several versions of the STAAR but also with hours of benchmark tests and other forms of preparation because government blindly equates passing STAAR scores with success. With school accountability ratings and, in some cases, teachers’ jobs at stake, government has made a big deal about how well childen do or don’t do on STAAR.
But does our government make as big a deal about issues of far more critical importance to millions of Texas children and their families than a test score – issues like, say, poverty, health care or child abuse? You be the judge.
One of every four Texas children lives in poverty, with even higher percentages among two minority groups – 33 percent of Hispanic kids and 32 percent for African Americans. Many of these kids are coming to school hungry, and it’s been this way for years. It also has been years – if ever – since state leaders made a concerted effort to really do something about it.
(In all these cases, I am talking about the majority of legislators and other state leaders because a minority of lawmakers are really trying to do the right thing but are consistently outvoted.)
Some 11 percent of Texas children – several hundred thousand — don’t have health insurance, which means many kids are coming to school sick and many more aren’t coming to school at all, or not very regularly. This is an old, recurring problem that recent governors and the legislative majority have stubbornly refused to address, even to the point of rejecting hundreds of millions of dollars in available Medicaid funds under the Affordable Care Act. And the legislative majority worsened the problem last year by cutting $350 million from the existing Medicaid program, cuts affecting an estimated 60,000 disabled children, including many in foster care.
Meanwhile, foster care in Texas remains a mess, as it has been for years, with several top level administrators recently resigning and many Texas children either being subjected to abuse or in danger of abuse from caregivers with woefully inadequate state supervision.
Dogged by a federal judge and some embarrassing publicity, the Legislature appropriated some extra money for Child Protective Services last year and talked tough about the need to crack down on abuse of foster children. But the Legislature spent much more – almost $4 billion – on tax cuts, and it left several billion dollars in the bank, while caseworkers remained overwhelmed and children remained imperiled.
The tough talk is continuing, following the widely publicized death of a 4-year-old Grand Prairie girl, who died of abuse earlier this year, and the arrest of a 17-year-old, abused runaway from foster care, who is accused of murdering a University of Texas coed on the Austin campus a couple of weeks ago.
Most foster parents, I am sure, are doing a great job taking care of vulnerable children with difficult issues to address. But the problem is that state regulators aren’t finding all the abusers and potential abusers. Two of the main reasons they aren’t is because there aren’t enough caseworkers and turnover among caseworkers is high. The Grand Prairie girl who died was one of 70 cases her caseworker was trying to juggle. Ideally, that caseworker should have been responsible for no more than 12 kids.
Gov. Abbott and legislative leaders have ordered reforms. But reforms — without significant, additional funding – can’t do much to help caseworkers keep up with staggering caseloads and perform more than a cursory job of supervision and intervention to protect children’s lives.
Year in and year out, STAAR scores are a big deal with state government. The most vulnerable children in Texas, however, seem to be a big deal with state leaders only when tragedy strikes