By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — House Bill 4 — the “Pre-Kindergarten Bill” passed by the Texas Legislature in May — was the central topic of a Sept. 10 morning legislative review sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.
During that meeting, Texas State Representatives Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, and Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, offered their thoughts on public education and the bipartisan workings of the 84th Texas legislative session.
As many as 70 people attended the gathering on the second floor of the Aaron Family JCC in the Mankoff Center for Jewish Learning. It was part of the JCRC Legislative Series, which also included the Legislative Update and Forecast in January and the Jewish Communities Day at the State: Legislative Mission to Austin in March.
In attendance were such notables as Florence Shapiro, former Texas State Senator (and JCRC adviser); Dallas County Judge Jeff Rosenfield; and the staffs of U.S. Senators John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
It should be noted that Eric Johnson championed an alternate Pre-K bill — House Bill 1100, which would have had a full-day prekindergarten program provided by public school districts.
But the legislature instead opted to pass House Bill 4, a plan favored by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. HB4 will create a $130 million — $1,500 per child — grant program that can allocate funds to eligible school districts that agree to enhance pre-K programs focusing on students from low-income, foster, non-English-speaking and military families.
Proponents describe House Bill 4 as a first step in the right direction.
The criticism of that bill — which Eric Johnson reiterated to the Texas Jewish Post — is that it doesn’t go far enough.
“There was a question (during the presentation) about what the priorities are going to be next session,” Johnson said. “I hope we actually come back and solve school finance and put our public schools on a path where the funding issue will be taken off the table. I want to continue to focus on what the governor said about this being a ‘first step’ on the pre-K issue and that we’re going to take a bigger step next session.”
JCRC Executive Director Anita Zusman Eddy said the JCRC championed the HB4 version of the Pre-K issue, and advocated that bill in a trip to Austin last January.
“Studies have shown that quality Pre-K education is critical for ensuring success of children throughout their school career and then up until their work career,” she said after the meeting. “We all believe in making an investment in quality education for young children throughout the Dallas community.”
Melanie Rubin was the moderator during the program, and Florence Shapiro provided the welcoming remarks. Shapiro noted that JCRC has been staying on top of important issues on the local and state level.
Seth Kaplan, JCRC leadership board member, also discussed the aforementioned trip to Austin as well as JCRC work done in interfaith and ethnic outreach.
During a brief interview after the meeting, Jason Villalba sang the virtues of bipartisanism on bills such as HB4.
“We have serious issues facing us — public education, transportation, water — and we need to work together and find consensus,” he said.
“We need to stay away from divisiveness and come together on issues that impact us the most.”