Discussion will highlight education

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Advocates will have to fight to keep issues such as poverty, health care and education funding on the forefront of Texas lawmakers’ minds during the 82nd legislative session, said representatives from nonprofit and state political offices.

When the 82nd Legislature convenes on Jan. 11, redrawing the Texas political map will likely consume most of the oxygen in the next session, said Sherri Greenberg, a former state representative.

“Typically, legislatures don’t like to talk about redistricting more often than every 10 years because it’s not fun,” said Greenberg, current interim director of the Center for Politics and Governance in the LBJ School. “You don’t make friends in that discussion, but it has to be done.”

More than four million Texans — 17 percent of the state’s population — fall below the federal poverty line, which stood at $22,000 per year for a family of four last year.

“It’s obviously not a lot of money to work with,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior budget analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a progressive nonprofit group that helps low- and middle-income Texans. “Even at that low-income level, most Americans, when they’re polled, think the poverty line should be much higher than that.”

The Texas Education Agency deems more than half of Texan children — 59 percent — as “economically disadvantaged,” defined as children who qualify for free or reduced-price federal lunch. Those children should not expect to see their schools and education programs get much relief given the projected $25 billion state budget deficit.

“Here you can see why the state does things like expand classroom sizes or get rid of music or art features,” DeLuna Castro said. “Some families may see public schools worsening and decide to take their children elsewhere, but for most kids in Texas, the tuition for a private school is not an option economically.”

But the low nutritional value in those meals may expose them to a higher risk of childhood obesity, said Jamie Dudensing, a senior policy advisor to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Being obese as a child almost guarantees obesity as an adult, she said.

“The chances are an alarming amount,” she said. “We have [a] big challenge ahead of us in Texas. Our numbers are not looking good, and as [the Texas Deparment of Health and Human Services] absorb more of our budget that means there’s less for education, less for parks and recreation, less for everything else.”