FILE - Texas Republican Scandal

Texas state Rep Dennis Bonnen, right, with Gov. Greg Abbott.

(The Center Square) – Two bills that would help parents with special needs children and those who are seeking alternate education options are one step closer to becoming law. The Texas House passed SB 1716 and SB 1955, both of which had already been passed by the Texas Senate.

SB 1716 extends and expands the Supplemental Special Education Services program that was implemented during the state shutdown last year.

Children with special needs may experience developmental delays, medical conditions, psychiatric conditions, and/or congenital conditions and require special accommodations that are generally provided at schools in person. Because school closures denied these children access to essential therapies and interventions they needed, parents looked for alternatives, which were often expensive and difficult to find.

In response, Gov. Greg Abbott created the SSES program to provide $1,500 grants to these families to help cover their costs. Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Galveston, who sponsored SB 1716 to extend, expand and make the grant permanent, would ensure families have additional resources for the long term. The money can be used to purchase services providing additional education support. The bill passed 116 to 26.

The House also passed SB 1955, filed by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, which protects learning pods from burdensome regulations by local governments.

In response to the state shutdown and frustrated by virtual learning programs offered by public schools, parents increasingly withdrew their children from schools and found alternatives to educating them. Some home-schooled for the first time. Others joined with groups of families to create learning pods and hired teachers or tutors to assist educating their children, a practice Texas home-school families have used for decades.

According to a recent poll, 85% of parents currently participate in a learning pod, the Texas Public Policy Foundation reports.

Due to the great demand, learning pods, and services to connect teachers to parents, also sprung up throughout Texas last year for the first time. They ranged from a collective of college students in Austin who joined together to offer teaching services to families, to companies matching teachers they hired to parents looking for tutors by region.

And with the growing practice and businesses popping up, the city of Austin and others began regulating them.

“Unfortunately, certain municipalities, including Austin, have attempted to regulate learning pods using provisions that apply to childcare providers, residential zoning, and school health guidelines,” Erin Davis Valdez, a policy analyst at TPPF, said. Valdez submitted testimony in support of the bill to the Texas Senate Education Committee.

“Whether parents are supplementing their child’s education or using a pod as a replacement for regular schooling, learning pods are a form of entirely voluntary association,” Valdez said. The bill “simply seeks to protect the existing liberties that families have always enjoyed in Texas.”

The new law prevents the city of Austin, and all other municipalities, from implementing the types of regulations Valdez and others raised concerns about, allowing parents the freedom and flexibility to find educational options that best suit their children’s needs.