From Lunch Shaming to Sandra Bland, Texas Governor Signs Slew of Bills
By James Barragán, Lauren McGaughy and Eva-Marie Ayala
With three days left for him to sign or veto bills passed during the regular session, Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law legislation that would give faith-based adoption agencies legal protection to reject gay parents, let voters decide the fate of Dallas County Schools and create a law named after a woman who died in custody after a controversial arrest.
On Thursday, Abbott vetoed 50 bills, the most killed by a Texas governor in a decade, but he has also stayed busy signing laws around education, law enforcement and child welfare.
Local voters will determine the fate of the embattled Dallas County Schools, which provides busing and other services for some area districts.
Legislation calling for a November election was included in a catch-all education bill Abbott signed Thursday. The move to scrap the countywide agency came after several reports by KXAS-TV (NBC5) on questionable business dealings, political contributions and financial challenges. There were also reports of bus drivers running red lights and running late to schools
Interim superintendent Leatha Mullins issued a statement Thursday saying the agency will meet as soon as Tuesday to discuss what's next.
"It makes no sense to dismantle an agency that has been serving the county and students for 170 years," she said. "This decision will have dire consequences for all of the school districts involved."
Also in that bill was a measure allowing school staffers who have a license to carry to keep firearms in their private vehicles while parked at the campus or other district property. Another measure in the bill aimed to stop so-called lunch shaming by requiring schools to set grace periods and notify parents of low accounts.
Abbott also signed a revamp of the new A-F grading system for schools.
Superintendents across the state cried foul when the Texas Education Agency unveiled a preliminary look at the accountability system, saying it stigmatized schools in the poorest neighborhoods.
Under the new law, districts will receive overall A-F grades next year and campuses will be graded in 2019.
In recent days, Abbott finalized a measure by a Dallas lawmaker that bans suspending kids in pre-K through second grade except in the most extreme cases.
The governor also signed laws that: extended the lifeline of graduation committees that allow students who fail STAAR tests to earn a diploma anyway; create stiffer penalties for cyberbullies; allow some community colleges to offer bachelor degrees; and develop an early childhood teacher certification.
Beginning Sept. 1, adoption agencies will get extra legal cover if they cite their religious beliefs as a reason to deny services or turn away prospective parents.
The law will apply to both taxpayer-funded and private child-placing agencies in Texas, giving these groups an additional defense if they're sued. It will also prohibit the state from taking "adverse action" against such groups for placing a child in a religious school or denying a child in their care access to abortion or contraception, among other things, if they cite their "sincerely-held religious beliefs."
Opponents said the move was tantamount to state-sanctioned bigotry. Christian groups can use the new law, they warn, to turn away good families based on sexual orientation or belief in another religion, like Judaism or Islam.
"Abbott has codified anti-LGBTQ discrimination into law," said Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign. "This law will now prioritize discrimination over the best interests of children looking for a loving, stable home."
Opponents point to the state's ongoing child welfare crisis as another downside to the new law. With an overabundance of adoptable children in Texas, the state should be trying to find more prospective parents, they said, not allowing taxpayer-funded groups to turn them away.
But Republicans who pushed the bill this year said it's this very crisis that spurred them to file the legislation. Christian adoption agencies in Texas have threatened to pull out, as they have in other states, if they're forced to violate their beliefs.
Giving them legal cover will allow them to keep working in Texas, proponents say. The law requires the groups to find an alternative agency for families they reject.
Sandra Bland Act
Abbott signed into law several law enforcement bills Thursday, including a hotly debated one named after Sandra Bland, an African-American woman whose death in the Waller County Jail was ruled a suicide after a state trooper arrested her during a traffic stop.
Her 2015 death became a symbol of the tense relationship between police and communities of color. Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced a bill named for Bland that proposed drastic changes to policing standards and policies to avoid similar deaths.
Opposition from law enforcement groups doomed Coleman's bill. A companion bill by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, cleared both chambers but was stripped of the toughest provisions and dealt mostly with improving mental health standards and training and reporting racial profiling. Bland's family said it "missed the mark" in addressing the factors that led to her death.
Coleman said the law was a "building block" and touted its efforts to improve de-escalation training for officers and jail cell checks for people suffering from mental illness. The law also requires independent agencies to investigate jail deaths.
Abbott also signed laws that will create fees for police departments that don't report officer-involved shootings or injuries, provide free prekindergarten to children of first responders killed or hurt while on duty and designate July 7, the anniversary of the downtown Dallas shooting, as Fallen Law Enforcement Officer Day.
(c)2017 The Dallas Morning News