Slew of bills advance parental rights in Texas Legislature

Several bills introduced in the Texas Legislature would expand educational options for Texas parents, including through special needs micro-grants, learning pod protections, expanding and improving virtual school programs and public charter schools, and creating education savings accounts and tax credits.

The bills are lauded by school choice groups who argue the statewide shutdown revealed the widespread need and demand for increased academic options.

“The prolonged school closures as a result of the pandemic reinforced the imperative to have meaningful school choice in the Lone Star State,” the director of the Texas Federation for Children, Mandy Drogin, said in a statement. Drogin argues the shutdown exposed failures in the education system that left disadvantaged and special needs children behind.

One bill, introduced by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, SB 1716, would expand micro grants for special needs students. During the nearly year-long state shutdown, Gov. Greg Abbott offered help to them in the form of $30 million worth of grants. Special needs students enrolled in the public school system were eligible for $1,500 grants. The bill would make these grants permanent and expand the program.

Taylor also introduced SB 1955 to protect learning pods from overregulation by local governments and SB 27 to expand and improve virtual school programs. Prior to the state shutdown, only five school districts and two charter schools were authorized to offer full-time virtual instruction in Texas. The law would expand virtual school course options to Texas’ 1,247 school districts.

As more parents withdrew their children from the public school system than ever before, the Texas Homeschool Coalition notes, parents sought different ways to educate their children, including through homeschooling, micro-pods, charter schools and other hybrid-options.

“In response to COVID-19, remote learning and social distancing, a record-breaking number of families have chosen to homeschool – many for the first time,” the coalition states.

According to the State Policy Network, 40 percent of parents nationwide believed their children were behind academically after 2020 spring school closures.

Immediately following the release of the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) back-to-school guidelines last July, the coalition saw a 1,700% increase in the number of families who withdrew from public schools using its online withdrawal tool.

A report from the Texas Education Agency last year found that statewide enrollment in public schools dropped 3% from 2019 to 2020 – prior to the shutdown, a number that is expected to be higher for the school year of 2020-2021.

Last August, Gallup reported that home-schooling nationwide had doubled. By that time last year, the new number of home-schoolers in Texas could have been as high as 670,000 and growing.

In addition to home-schooling, “Learning pods were one of the more remarkable developments in education in many years,” Drogin said. “Parents, not content with virtual offerings and upset by prolonged closures, took the initiative to provide education to their children in a small group setting.”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, introduced SB 28 and HB 3279, respectively, to expand public charter schools in the state. There are more than 160,000 families on waiting lists to enroll their children in Texas charter schools. The bills would reduce regulatory burdens placed on charter school operations, enabling more to expand and accept more students.

Bettencourt, along with state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, introduced SB 1968 and HB 4537, respectively to create an Education Savings Account program. The bills would help low-income families the most, enabling them to save money to use toward private school tuition and fees, purchase textbooks or other instructional materials, pay for tutoring or education therapies. Funding for the bills would come from tax credit-incentivized donations and appropriated funds. Sen. Angela Paxton, R-Frisco, also introduced SB 1698 to create a scholarship tax credit program.

For years, the Texas Homeschool Coalition and thousands of home-school families have advocated for the UIL Equal Access Bill in the Texas legislature.  Introduced by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls (HB 547), and Sen. Paxton (SB 491), the measures would grant home-schoolers access to extracurricular activities through the University Interscholastic League (UIL) within their local school district. Texas is one of only 15 states that does not grant these privileges.

The coalition is also advocating for the Child Trauma Prevention Act and the Family Unity Act to ensure the rights of biological parents and the best interests of the child are protected. Frank, along with Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Tyler, introduced the first bill. Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion on the second based on Supreme Court precedent. There are thousands of cases across the state, the coalition has found, where parents have been wrongly separated from their children and can’t afford to hire an attorney for their appeal.

Hearings have been held on some of these bills and some are moving their way through the legislative process, which is slated to end at the end of May.

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