Freshman lawmaker leads push for ‘Whole Student Agenda’

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — An up-and-coming Texas lawmaker is taking the lead on a different approach to improving education, and he’s getting support from lawmakers in both parties.

State Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) is working with several lawmakers on a package of bills called the Whole Student Agenda. It includes legislation on suicide prevention programs and strengthening mental health services on campuses as well as proposals to add classes on civics, sex education, and financial literacy.

Rep. Talarico spoke about the proposals in an interview with politics reporter Phil Prazan on Sunday’s State of Texas program.

PRAZAN: You’re working with several lawmakers on what you’re calling the “whole student agenda”  What is that?

TALARICO: So it’s a bipartisan legislative package and it includes 24 bills currently that are hoping to promote safe and healthy schools through strenghtening mental health services on campuses, scaling suicide prevention programs and investing in practical curriculum that’s going to help prepare our students for the real world like financial literacry, sex ed. and civics.

PHIL: Civics, sex ed, mental health services, people will say this is important.

TALARICO: Yes.

PHIL: But I’m sure you’ll find some pushback, who’ll say that’s not going to get that student a job.  To those people you say?

TALARICO: Sure — I say you can just look at the work we’ve done this week. On Tuesday we’ve introduced, along with my other public education members, led by our chairman Dan Huberty, HB3. Which is a comprehensive overhaul of our school finance system and that includes things like early childhood funding for full-day pre-k for our students, it includes career and education that moves all the way down to sixth grade. These are things that are going to help students prepare for the workforce but again if they’re not healthy and safe then the academics doen’t mean much to them. 

PHIL: How much time do you think will some of this stuff take out of the day? You’ve been a teacher for years. There isn’t enough time to teach what they’re required to do already.

TALARICO: I would kinda flip that question and ask: how much time in a day is currently being wasted because students are either off task or feel like they’re not ready to learn when entering a classroom. 

PHIL: So which one of these will you be pushing, as opposed to which ones have different authors?

TALARICO: So some of them are written by me and will be working with joint authors to get those passed. And then others have been the primary authors or other legislators which we’ve included in this agenda because they’re kinda thematically similar. So Rep. Thierry, Dr. Alan, James White, it’s a bipartisan coalition. So they’ve authored some of these pieces of legislation, others are kinda led by our team.

PHIL: What’s an example of one of those?

TALARICO: So, for instance, one of our pieces of legislation that we’re pushing as the primary author is an attempt to scale an initiative that is being used in Round Rock ISD to extend suicide prevention training to school officials outside of the classroom and the primary example for that is bus drivers. Bus drivers are the school officials who see our kids first thing in the mornings and last thing in the afternoon. And so they can really be our frontline defense in suicide prevention. They can do so much more than just drive a bus. They can really be some of the key folks pushing these really key initiatives. 

PHIL: So that’s training?

TALARICO:  That’s training on suicide prevention, things to watch out for, how to react to a situation. It’s an initiative that’s doing really great in Round Rock ISD and the goal of this bill is to scale that throughout the state. 

PHIL: This is your first legislative session.

TALARICO: Yeah.

PHIL:  It’s not very often a freshman takes on to lead a 24 bill agenda. What kind of encouragement have you gotten from the leadership on this?

TALARICO: Yeah, you know Speaker Bonnen who obviously belongs to a different party than I do, has been tremendously encouraging to me. He came into the House also at his 20’s at an early age and took an active role in shaping policy and moving bills forward to the process, and he encouraged me to as a freshman both to watch and learn but also become and active participant in the process. I was elected to represent the people of House District 52 and they dont have time for me to wait and spending a session just sitting back and learning. I have to both learn and participate at the same time.

PHIL:  We’re revamping a lot of school policies, school finance. Do you see this working kind of separate from HB 3 or being worked into…?

TALARICO: I see these as working hand-in-hand, as HB3 in which I was really honored to help shape from the ground up with leadership of Vice Chair Diego Bernal, Chair Huberty and Speaker Bonnen is really gonna help fix our school finance system and offer relief to propetty tax payers and ensure that our curriculum is preparing students academically for high school and beyond. And our agenda, I think is meeting the other half of that which is ensuring our non-academic needs of our students are being met. And so hopefully the two can work together as a comprehensive approach to prepare our students for the future. 

PHIL: So you’re going to do that. But then Senate has different plans as of now. How do you see that playing out?

TALARICO: As of our conversation, I haven’t seen a school finance plan from the Senate, that may change by the time we’re done here. So currently the only proposal I’ve seen from the Senate is a mandated teacher pay raise across the board treating all teachers equally. So there are two problems with that, of course in politics a quick soundbite is appealing to a lot of people, it’s easy to communicate and that’s currently what’s happening with SB3. But teachers don’t work for the state legislature, they’re not our employees to increase pay or not to increase pay, they work for school districts. And so our proposal as the Texas House, is to give the resources to districts to make those decisions for themselves on the ground and if they want to have an across the board pay raise that’s up to them and their community. If they wanna target that to the most experienced or most talented teachers then that’s up to them. Again, these decisions need to be made by local communities. I ran as a local control candidate and I intend to legislate as a local control official.

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