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AUSTIN — More than 1 in 3 Texas children under six live in or near poverty, and nearly 8% of Texas children experience moderate to severe hunger.

Texans Care for Children, a nonpartisan public policy organization focused on issues facing children, is working to bring this and other critical information on child development to light with its new school readiness dashboard made available this week. 

David Feigen, TCC director of Early Learning Policy, said he hopes the dashboard will be helpful for policymakers, advocates and stakeholders as the state assesses how it is doing to ensure children are school ready and what additional investments can and should be made during the next legislative session.

“We think that in this whole picture of school readiness, that includes childcare and pre-K, child hunger, nutritious foods, parenting skills, healthy births, preterm births and health care. These are all things that are critical to understanding what's actually happening to Texas families and how it impacts school readiness,” Feigen said.

Texas ranks among one of the worst states in daily reading at home, which helps prepare kids for learning at school. The state also has one of the highest rates of food insecurity with significant disparities among racial and ethnic lines. In addition, compared to children in other states, Texas children are more likely to live in low-income households. 

Feigen added that insufficient investments in Texas children not only impact the state but the country, too, as one in ten children under the age of 6 in America lives in Texas.

“School readiness traditionally has been thought of as early literacy and a child's ability to be able to say their ABCs,” Feigen said. “That's certainly part of it, but ultimately, for children to be school ready, it takes families having the ability to sing to their kid, to read to their kid. It takes parents having the ability to be able to take their kid to get the eyeglasses they need. It takes them being able to ensure that they have good food for their children to eat.”

Research by the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness found that children who are born healthy and have access to reliable, consistent and timely health services are more likely to be school ready. Children also have a better chance of learning if they have the glasses they need for seeing the whiteboard, the medications they need to return to school when they’re out sick and other life necessities.

The State Legislature is facing a surplus this coming session with more than $131 billion to spend. While special interest groups across the state are vying for a slice of the pie, Feigen said investing in children is a worthy cause because of the impact it has.

He said school readiness means providing children the opportunity to thrive. Research shows that by investing in early childhood reading, for example, a child is more likely to be a strong reader by third grade, a critical point in American education where students stop learning to read and begin reading to learn. Strong reading skills are also tied to graduation rates and likelihood of starting one’s own business.

“It takes a real investment of our resources and our time and our prioritization, but these children are essential to where we want to put our resources,” Feigen said. 

While Texas State leaders have previously allocated money to early education programs such as funding for prekindergarten expansions, Feigen said more needs to be done. The TCC highlights more than 50 policy recommendations to address gaps.

 Some of those, Feigen said, are low-hanging fruit that are not costly, such as breaking down administrative barriers that make it difficult for parents to enroll children in health care benefits or food programs.

While Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Wednesday he is weary of programs that will continually cost the state over time, Feigen said he believes there will be bipartisan support for extending health coverage for new moms up to 12 months postpartum. The measure passed at six months last session but remains paused due to federal waiver issues.

He added that he is also hopeful there is enough support to shore up the state’s child care infrastructure.

But whichever path state lawmakers choose to take during the first half of next year, Feigen said he hopes they understand that a holistic approach is necessary to ensure Texas children have every opportunity to thrive.

“This isn't just an issue of good parents and bad parents, it’s about the investments that we are willing to make to ensure that Texas children have the best opportunity to be school ready and to meet their potential,” Feigen said.

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