With the pandemic placing schools in a “political crossfire,” voters ought to support candidates in this year’s primaries and general election who value public education and mental health, Joe Straus, former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, said in a speech Wednesday at the Witte Museum.

Straus told the Rotary Club of San Antonio that now is the time for elected officials to introduce a “bold solution that can be implemented and scaled quickly” to bring relief to Texans who are suffering from the mental health crisis spurred by the pandemic. Local governments have millions in federal coronavirus relief funds they can use to prioritize mental health services for residents.

“Without action, the obstacles will only grow,” said Straus, who represented District 121 as a Republican for almost 14 years.

The pandemic has linked mental health and public education, with the challenges in the classroom extending far beyond the learning gaps created by months of virtual instruction, Straus said. That is why students and educators need support more than ever.

“Students, teachers, families so often over the last year, they’ve been caught in a political crossfire over divisive wedge issues that have little to do with learning,” he said. “It’s important that we give our schools and our teachers some support, and that we give them some grace. We should give them gratitude for all that they have overcome these last couple of years.”

Straus added that elected officials ought to recognize the work that educators do, especially with every seat in the Texas Legislature and almost every statewide office on the ballot this year.

“Public education should be a central issue in all of those elections,” he said. “Our commitment to public education can go a long way in determining not only the opportunities available to students but also the long-term durability of our economy. After all, investments in public education are investments in our very future.”

School politics played a central role in the Virginia’s governor race in November. In his successful campaign for governor, Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, campaigned against the teaching of critical race theory and the state’s closing of schools early in the pandemic. A poll commissioned by the Democrats for Education Reform’s political affiliate found that 70% of Virginia voters who ranked education as a priority issue in the state’s governor race voted for Youngkin, Politico reported.

Moreover, with Texas continuing to grow, Straus said, the state needs to have the infrastructure in place to support public education and mental health care for all residents. The Legislature has made some progress, creating the Texas Child Mental Health Consortium in 2019, an initiative to improve mental health care for children by fostering collaboration among health care providers. Around the same time, Bexar County leaders created the Southwest Texas Crisis Collaborative, which realigned and improved the mental health services for San Antonio residents.

“Even in these uncertain times, as we confront challenges ranging from the pandemic to tribalism in our politics, there is reason for hope and optimism about where we are going in Texas,” he said. “Over these last couple of years, we’ve seen real heroes step up from health care workers putting in grueling hours to educators working through all of the challenges of the pandemic. People are coming together to help each other. Let’s hope our elected officials will start to come together more also.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.