On a drizzly Tuesday morning, State Rep. Diego Bernal stood before a class of about 30 sophomore, junior, and senior students at Churchill High School and introduced himself to the class.
Bernal, a San Antonio Democrat whose District 123 includes a small portion of North East Independent School District, served as guest teacher for Carolyn Drechsel’s Advanced Placement U.S. Government class as part of an initiative that encourages school districts to invite elected officials into the classroom.
Bernal started the day by answering questions from students ranging from his taco preferences to why the Jefferson High School graduate decided to get into politics. He told them he wasn’t at all interested initially.
“I always thought [you had to be wary of] the high school sophomore who was determined to be a senator, you had to be scared of that kid,” Bernal said. “I always thought that because the most important question you can ask someone running for office is why. It will help you distinguish whether they are there for themselves or whether they want to do the work.”
Bernal spent his early career after law school working as a civil rights attorney doing pro bono work. When his father fell ill, Bernal put his career on pause and went to the Rio Grande Valley to take care of him, but found upon returning that securing a new job would be challenging in a struggling economy.
Nonprofit legal jobs “didn’t exist,” Bernal said.
At the time, his San Antonio City Council member was about to term out and Bernal believed serving in such a position would give him power to effect real change. He was elected to represent District 1 in 2011 and won a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in 2015.
Drechsel’s lesson Tuesday was about bureaucracy and hierarchy in U.S. government, and Bernal assisted by sharing anecdotes from his own experience in policy making.
He emphasized that bureaucracy can be positive when it works, but acknowledged that it doesn’t always function well.
Bernal’s office is trying to make sense of a decision related to funding from the School Health and Related Services, which is a Medicaid reimbursement program that allowed school districts to get paid back for Medicaid health-related services like one-on-one therapy for special education students.
Now the government is asking those costs to come out of families’ private insurance, Bernal said. Bernal’s legislative director Julia Grizzard said that the fear is families could opt out of using their private insurance, leaving districts with the bill.
“We don’t know who made the decision, or how to flip the switch back,” Bernal told the class.
Students later worked on a questionnaire that asked them to identify the layers of the bureaucracy of pizza – ranging from oversight of cardboard boxes to regulation of cheese.
Drechsel encouraged students to take out their phones to research the questions.
“When she said, ‘Everyone, pull out your phones to finish the assignment,’ that was very twilight zone for me,” Bernal said. “I felt like a dinosaur.”
The Texas representative said he has previously been invited into schools as a guest speaker, but had never stayed to help instruct multiple classes.
Being present in schools and among people he represents is important, he said.
“I just think you always need to spend time close to the ground, whatever issue you are working on,” said Bernal, who serves as vice chair of the House Public Education committee. “If you lack or if you are not seeking out first-person experience or even talking to people who do it for a living, then you’re missing something.”
As the Legislature’s start date looms in January, Churchill Principal Justin Oxley told the Rivard Report that he was excited to have Bernal on campus, and thought it was important for lawmakers to visit and experience what happens in schools so they could take that input and use it in the coming legislative session.