Tennessee lawmaker’s bill would cut welfare benefits if children fail in school

Eric Owens | Editor

A Tennessee state senator has introduced legislation that would reduce welfare benefits for parents if their children fail to make “satisfactory academic progress” in school, reports the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Knoxville Republican Stacey Campfield says his proposed law — SB132 — is a step toward “breaking the cycle of poverty” because it would motivate parents on the dole to become more involved in helping their children learn.

“We have done little to hold them accountable for their child’s performance,” Campfield says on his Tennessee political blog, Camp4u. “What my bill would do is put some responsibility on parents for their child’s performance.”

The bill would affect the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. Under current law, parents or guardians of children who receive benefits can see their benefits cut by 20 percent if a child fails to attend school. Campfield’s bill would additionally require that children make “satisfactory academic progress.” If they don’t, recipients could see up to a 30 percent cut in benefits.

For students without disabilities, satisfactory academic progress would be defined as both advancing to the next grade and meeting minimum requirements on math and reading components of certain standardized tests.

“The state can not [sic] continue to support the generational cycle of poverty,” Campfield also wrote. “Just because parents may have quit school does not mean it is acceptable if their child does. Parents are responsible to make sure their kids are ready for school and that they get an education.”

Campfield explained his thinking to the News Sentinel by way of an analogy. Success in school rests on a “three-legged stool.” The three legs are schools, teachers and parents, he argued, and Tennessee has gone to considerable lengths to increase the quality of both schools and teachers.

Now is the time for the state to address the “third leg,” he said – parents.

“This bill is giving them motivation to do more to help their children learn in school,” the senator said. “If the family doesn’t care if the child goes to school or does well in school, the odds of that child getting out of poverty are pretty low.”

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis flatly opposed the bill proposed by his Republican colleague.

“How does Sen. Campfield expect a child to do his homework when there is no food on the dinner table?” Kyle asked.

Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, also expressed misgivings. Such a law could increase hardships for parents and children who are already facing difficulties, she said. It would also burden the state with more paperwork.

“The maximum benefit for a mother with two children is $185 a month,” O’Neal told the News Sentinel. “That’s already low. If you take $60 plus dollars away, you’re just further limiting people who already have extremely few resources.”

“The challenge is that there are many children who may be doing their best and just have not been diagnosed for special ed or they may be in schools that have failed them,” she added.

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