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September 20, 2006     (512) 463-0300

SENATE COMMITTEES CONTINUE WORK ON INTERIM CHARGES

The Senate Education Committee today considered the impact of a 1995 law that changed the public school disciplinary system in Texas to improve school safety and give local districts more flexibility in determining punishment for students. According to Texas Education Agency General Council David Anderson, Chapter 37 of the State Education Code was added amid concerns over the consistency of disciplinary action taken against students, about the lack of communication between local law enforcement and school districts, and about students removed from certain teachers' classrooms for repeated disruptive or dangerous behavior being returned to that same classroom.

Chapter 37 mandated increased cooperation between police and school officials, and required each district to adopt a uniform code of student conduct, said Anderson. The chapter allows teachers to remove a disruptive student from his or her class, and then have a say on whether that student can come back. It gives districts discretion to decide the length of suspension or expulsion for certain offenses based on extenuating circumstances, and requires districts to create disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEP) where students on disciplinary action are sent during suspension or expulsion.

Anderson said that of 4.5 million Texas school children, only 2.25 percent are sent to DAEP campuses, and that as a tool for improving classroom discipline, Chapter 37 has shown success.

Several principals, teachers, school board members and other administrators came forward today to applaud the effect of Chapter 37 on their school safety and discipline. Important for local officials was the ability to use discretion to tailor punishments to individual students. "Chapter 37 is a good law. It works for our schools," said Akins High School associate principal Cathy Felder. "I urge that we retain local control, and that we have this tool to use in educating our children."

Some parents came forward with concerns about the current disciplinary climate of Texas public schools, especially with respect to a law that mandates certain actions for certain offenses, known as a zero tolerance policy. Fred Hink, co-director of a community organization called Zero Tolerance Texas, asked the committee to look into increasing parental involvement in the disciplinary process, and suggested that the process become more transparent. He wants schools to contact parents when a violation of school policy occurs, and to bring in a parent or guardian before the process involves law enforcement. Other parents and citizens urged the committee to create a parent review board that could take a second look at disciplinary actions, and retain the right of the parent to be a key player in school disciplinary process.

On Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Services committee heard testimony relating to the state of Medicaid services and vaccination coverage in Texas.

In early 2006, the federal Deficit Reduction Act was signed into law. This act gave more discretion to states in determining how to allocate Medicaid dollars. Albert Hawkins, commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said that the state spends between $14 and $15 billion each year to insure more than 3 million Texans through Medicaid. While the cost of Medicaid coverage continues to rise, Hawkins said the trend has moderated in recent years.

Dr. John Holcomb, director of the Texas Medical Association Ad Hoc Committee on Medicaid and Access to Care, said that there are about 1.4 million children in Texas that lack basic healthcare coverage. Also, 79 percent of Texans without health insurance are in the work force, or have a spouse who works. This means that while they may have access to a private health insurance package, they may not have the resources to pay for it.

Holcomb added that Texas ranks #1 in the number of uninsured adults in the US, with the highest concentration along the border with Mexico.

Recommendations for improving Medicaid in Texas included what is called a three-share program, which splits the cost equally between the state, individual and the individual's employer. Witnesses also promoted expanding managed healthcare, in order to reduce the share of state Medicaid funds devoted to the elderly and disabled, currently at about 75 percent of total Medicaid expenditures, and developing a centralized database to evaluate the effectiveness of Medicaid program reforms.

The committee also considered the state's immunization policy and coverage. Commissioner of the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Dr. Eduardo Sanchez testified that the state has greatly increased its immunization coverage for young children, moving from a nation rank of 41st in 2004 to 24th in 2006.

Jack Sims of the Immunization Branch of DSHS added that the state has increased its infant immunization rate by 7.5 percent. Houston in particular has made strides in immunization coverage, upping its rate by 14.9 percent last year.

Sims outlined the state's program for increasing vaccination rates. Texas conducts vaccination awareness and education programs for parents in the state, disseminated through TV, the internet and literature. DSHS sends a notice to parents who have infants of 15 months encouraging them to keep their children up to date on vaccinations. DSHS also sets vaccination guidelines for school and daycare attendance.

Committee Chair Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound expressed her satisfaction with the increase of the immunization rate in Texas since 2004, but added that she wants the state to strive to lead the nation in vaccination coverage.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

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