AUSTIN (Nexstar) – More Texas voters of all ages say they’re worried about the path Texas is taking.

New polling from the non-partisan non-profit group Texas 2036 found 93% of Texas voters expressed concern about the state’s future. More than a third, 38% in the poll, said they are “extremely concerned.” That’s up from 25% when Texas 2036 did their previous poll in 2021.

The concern cuts across party lines. But the poll also found common ground between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to solutions to issues facing the state.

“When we look at things like education, water, criminal justice, workforce training, these big things out there that the legislature can address next session, a lot of these things 80% of Texans are ready to support,” explained John Hryhorchuk, the Senior Vice President for policy and advocacy for Texas 2036.

The state’s budget surplus could provide an opportunity to pay for some of those big ideas.

“When we asked Texans how they wanted to spend the budget surplus, it was very clear number one on their list was public education,” Hryhorchuk said. “They want to pay teachers more both both across the board and merit-based teacher pay,” he added.

Transparency is a key part of any spending program, Hryhorchuk noted. He pointed out the poll indicated support for an assessment accountability system that allows for transparency in how dollars are being spent on education and workforce training. And support for transparency carried over to other issues as well.

“On public safety, Texans trust their police, but they agree that there are transparency measures and additional efforts that can be made to stop having dishonorably discharged police officers rehired in other jurisdictions,” Hryhorchuk said.

Hryhorchuk described Texas 2036 as “a nonpartisan think tank that seeks to use data rather than ideology to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing our state as we approach our bicentennial in 2036.” He said the group works to make sure state lawmakers have the information they need to help pass reforms that benefit Texans.

“Our goal is to make sure that as legislators prepare for January and that session, they know that there is a broad basis civic demand to go after these meat-and-potatoes governance issues that are gonna improve the lives for everyone as we approach our bicentennial.”

Vacancies impact bilingual and special education classrooms in Texas

Corey Yanez, the mother of a second-grade Austin Independent School District student, asks her son every day during pick-up if he has a new teacher. Her son, Alex, has been enrolled in the district’s dual language program since he was in kindergarten. His grandmother does not speak English. Yanez said it was important to her Alex be fluent in Spanish.

But this year, Yanez said her son started the school year with a substitute in his dual language program. His school has five openings: two are for English as a second language teachers and one is for a certified bilingual teacher.

“To me, it’s a crisis,” Yanez said. “They are already at a disadvantage because of COVID. This is holding them back even more.”

There are at least 800 Austin-metro area classrooms without a teacher, according to data obtained in Sept. from 21 school districts. Many of those vacancies are for bilingual and special education staff.

On Aug. 31, Austin ISD reported 75 vacancies for bilingual classroom teachers and 90 spots open for special education teachers. Dallas Independent School District officials reported it needed to fill 63 bilingual teacher vacancies at the start of September. Houston ISD reported its still looking for 40 bilingual educators.

Dr. Lizdelia Piñón, an education associate for the non-profit Intercultural Development Research Association, told lawmakers during a September hearing on bilingual teacher vacancies her own children had a substitute in their dual language program for several weeks.  

“We cannot do this to our kids, especially our kids that need us most. They are going to be high-risk coming from another country. They might not know the language — low economic status,” Piñón said. “These are the students that we should be pouring our resources and time to get those high-quality teachers.”

Piñón said there are financial barriers slowing educators from becoming bilingual teachers: mainly the costs for the required exams to get certified in Texas. There are two additional exams required to be able to teach emerging bilingual learners and dual language programs in Texas that total up to $232 in additional fees.

Districts are not just struggling to hire bilingual educators. Data obtained from school districts in Central Texas and some of the largest in the state show, in many cases, the vacancies are in schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.

School districts, like Austin ISD, are offering stipends for positions they deem hard to fill – math, science, CTE, bilingual education and special education teachers. 

Austin ISD Board President Geronimo Rodriguez said the district also hopes to give its teachers a 3% raise under the next budget.

Rodriguez said that will depend on whether voters pass a $2.4 billion bond package. He believes the package will save the district millions in maintenance costs.  

But Rodriguez said school districts, like Austin ISD, need help from the legislature – particularly when it comes to re-examining the state’s Recapture system, which requires property-rich school districts to pay the state some of their collected property taxes to then be re-distributed to lower-income school districts.

Austin ISD projects it will pay $798 million back to the state in the 2022-23 school year.

“For us, there are certain things we can do — like advocate for 10% discount on our recapture payment — which means we get to keep some of that money back if we pay it early, increasing the basic allotment — those are things the legislature can do on our behalf and help us,” Rodriguez said.  

Yanez is worried her son could fall behind. She said she is more concerned about immediate solutions.

“Pay the teachers more. Bottom line. They need more money. We need to pay them so that they stay,” Yanez said. “Our kids are the ones being affected by this.”

Key races deep in the heart of Texas ballots

The race for Governor is getting the most attention statewide. But many of the key races in Texas are not on the statewide ballot. Some are happening deeper down the ballot.

In south Texas, the race for U.S. House District 34 pits two sitting members of Congress against each other. Republican Mayra Flores won a special election this summer to finish Democrat Filemon Vela’s term. Meanwhile, redistricting pushed Rep. Vicente Gonzalez to run in District 34. Democrats hope to flip the seat, while Republicans are pushing to keep Flores on Capitol Hill.

Few races for Congress in Texas are expected to be competitive. The redistricting process made Republican-leaning districts redder, and Democratic-leaning districts more blue. That trend carried over to several Texas House and Senate districts.

In the Lubbock area, Republicans like State Senator Charles Perry, and State Representative Dustin Burrows will not face a Democrat on the ballot. In the Panhandle, Republican Four Price faces Libertarian challenger Nick Hearn, but no Democrat in the race for State House District 87.

Voters in some Texas cities will be looking deeper down the ballot for closely-contested races. Midland Mayor Patrick Payton is not running for reelection. Former mayor Jerry Morales is running for the open spot, along with current city councilwoman Lori Blong and retiree Robert Allen Dickson.

Austin voters will also choose a new mayor. Due to term limits, Mayor Steve Adler is not running for reelection. Six candidates looking to take that spot include former Austin mayor and State Senator Kirk Watson, State Rep. Celia Israel, and businesswoman Jennifer Virden. Austin voters will also see a $350 million affordable housing bond on their ballot this year. If passed, it would be the largest housing bond in Austin to date.

Tuesday, October 11 is the deadline to register to vote in the November election. Early voting starts on October 24 and runs through November 4. Election day is Tuesday, November 8.

Delayed data hampers efforts to address maternal health issues in Texas

Nakeenya Wilson can recall story after story.

“We just had a mom last week who had to be readmitted to the hospital, due to postpartum complications. And we were able to send doulas for 24-hours, around-the-clock care, for her baby so that she can be with her baby and get the medical care that she, you know, needs to receive,” Wilson explained.

Nakeenya Wilson is part of the state committee studying maternal outcomes. (Courtesy: Nakeenya Wilson)

She said it’s thanks to a million-dollar grant through the Maternal Health Equity Collaborative, adding that before the grant it would have been different circumstances.

“Prior to this grant, we will see moms who would literally discharge against medical advice and potentially put their life at risk,” Wilson said.

Wilson is a founding member of the organization started during the pandemic and which advocates for improving maternal health among Black women.

“The Maternal Health Equity Collaborative received the million-dollar grant back in 2020, that allows for us to provide perinatal childcare for Black women that can range from the time that they’re pregnant – childbirth and then up to 12 months postpartum,” Wilson explained.

She also sits on the state’s Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee. The group is studying data and trying to understand why Texas moms are dying and if those deaths were preventable.

The report which includes pregnancy-related deaths and disparities was supposed to be released last month but the Texas Department of State Health Services said it’s still being reviewed.

Chris Van Deusen, Director of Media Relations with DSHS said the committee is still in the middle of reviewing 2019 maternal deaths and that year’s maternal and fetal death files were recently finalized and staff is reviewing them which is an extensive process.

“We look forward to continuing to work with legislators on ideas about ways to speed up the review committee’s work as well as the maternal health data we can share,” said Van Deusen.

In a letter given to KXAN investigators and sent to Governor Greg Abbott, the department said the committee had reviewed 118 cases but had identified at least 31 additional cases. The data which was supposed to be released in September is now expected to be complete by next summer.

“I was at the meeting when the announcement was made, although I did not know about it ahead of time. So, I was very shocked and disappointed,” Wilson said. “I think that not having accurate data handicaps us and that those who are the most vulnerable will see the greatest impact,” said Wilson.

State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, testified last year in front of members of the Public Health Committee.

State Representative Shawn Theirry, D-Houston, has been sounding the alarm for years and pushing legislation that would include updated data collection on deaths during or within one year of delivery and high-risk conditions and complications.

“Texas Women cannot afford to wait on this information, the outcomes. The findings in the report drive our healthcare establishment – so safety protocols may be changed. We can draft policy to address why do we have such disparities based on race,” said Theirry. “Our hands are tied in the Texas legislature, we can’t craft any meaningful policy to address maternal health outcomes without the data.”

She said the data that has been available to the public is a decade old. KXAN investigators have extensively detailed problems with how the state tracks maternal deaths and near deaths since 2019.

“If we have an ability to implement better safety protocols, to find out what policies we can draft to make sure that no woman dies in childbirth, why wouldn’t we do that? No woman should die from hemorrhage in 2022,” said Thierry. “I represent a district that sits in the world-class medical center, where people fly from all around the world to get health care treatment. How could we now then say that we have some of the worst outcomes when it comes to maternal health.”

During Texas’ last legislative session, Thierry filed a bill that would have established an online maternal mortality and morbidity data registry, which would have essentially had real-time reporting of maternal health outcomes.

The bill did not pass, but Thierry said if it had, there would not be a need for a state agency or department to provide the information.

Thierry said she will refile the bill next legislative session, which starts in January.

Nakeenya Wilson said her own traumatic birth experience highlights the importance of current maternal health data. (Courtesy: Nakeenya Wilson)

A new CDC national report released found that four in five pregnancy-related deaths in the US are preventable. The agency explained that the data is based on detailed assessments of more than a thousand pregnancy-related deaths between 2017 and 2019.

The report said mental health conditions including deaths to suicide and overdose/poisoning related to substance use were the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths.

The state is in the process of rolling out the Hear Her Texas campaign this fall.

It includes testimonials from Texas mothers and encourages healthcare providers, family, and friends to listen and act when a mom expresses concern. 

“We’ve all got to get on the same page about getting accurate, relevant, up-to-date information to inform better and more comprehensive care,” Wilson said.

She has three children and said her pregnancies were high-risk. In her second one, she did have a traumatic birth experience.

“Being someone who was a near miss, I think that I have a deeper understanding of you know, what this really means when we hold off on providing the information necessary to make changes,” she explained.