Saturday, November 24, 2012

You can make a difference...

Years ago while I was campaigning to be re-elected to the Legislature, I ran into an older gentleman. As I attempted to hand him a card and give him my spiel, he interrupted me by saying, “Forget it, son, I don’t vote.”  It was frankly a reaction I had not expected, not having heard such a jaded view of the election process in my young career as a politician.  I attempted to convince the older fellow that he was wrong, and it could make a difference.  He was unpersuaded and replied it didn’t make a damn who he voted for, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
I wish at the time I had the experience which followed a couple of years later to relate to him about why he was wrong.  It had to do with the fact that a 14-year old girl took the time to speak to her elected representative and made a significant change in the laws in Texas related to the public schools.  It is a perfect case in point that citizens can make a difference, and the Legislature can be responsive to an everyday citizen.
While serving in the House of Representatives, I was approached by a young lady of the Jewish faith who was a close friend to my daughter.  They were the same age and in the same grade in school.  My daughter’s friend pointed out to me the unfairness of the school situation whereby people of the Christian faith were not required to deal with unexcused absences for their religious holidays such as Christmas or Easter whereas, on the other hand, if she took off for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur she would be given an unexcused absence possibly affecting her grade and class standing.  She wanted to know why that was true.  Frankly, I had no answer for her, but promised to check into it.
I promptly made a call to the Texas Education Agency and asked why it was that people of a religious faith other than Christian received unexcused absences for participating in their religious events.  The answer I received was fairly straightforward.  It was simply the way the law was and had been for some time.  

Armed with my new knowledge about the situation, I proceeded to enlist the assistance of the Texas Legislative Council and drafted a bill providing that the law be changed to accommodate absences related to legitimate religious celebrations such as the primary Jewish holidays.  To my delight I was quickly approached by Senator Babe Schwartz who volunteered to be the Senate sponsor of the measure.
To my further delight and surprise the measure sailed through the House process, went to the Senate, was passed there and was eventually signed by the governor.  Since that time there have been several amendments to the bill to accommodate other substantial religious beliefs existing in Texas.
The point of the story is that by a 14-year old merely pointing out what she believed to be unfair about the Texas law led to a significant change in a public education system probably affecting  thousands of students over the years.  So, anytime someone says they can’t make a difference in what happens in government at the state, or even the federal level, then tell them the story of the so-called Jewish school bill.  Hopefully, it could renew their interest in citizenship and participation in our democratic form of government.

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