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Proposed Tennessee bill would cut welfare benefits when kids fail at school

Education’s often seen as the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Do well in school and you’ll find a good job. Fail and you’re destined to a life of being poor.

So it’s understandable that a Tennessee lawmaker would back legislation linking school performance to welfare benefits — until you stop to think about the cold, hard realities of parenting a family under such circumstances.

Knoxville Republican Stacey Campfield proposed Senate Bill 132 in January. It would require up to a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) — or welfare — payments to parents or caretakers with children who “fail to maintain satisfactory progress in school.”

Despite facing a firestorm of controversy after first suggesting the bill, Campfield has persevered. Rep. Vance Dennis, a Republican from Savannah, Tenn., sponsored the bill in the House. This past week, the bill cleared both committees and appears to be on its way toward passage and law.

Campfield explained his reason for the bill in his blog, saying achievement in education is like a three-legged stool made up of schools, teachers and parents. “The third leg of the stool (probably the most important leg) is the parents,” he wrote. “We have done little to hold them accountable for their child’s performance. What my bill would do is put some responsibility on parents for their child’s performance.”

No kidding. A 30 percent reduction would cut the $185 a single mom and her two children receive each month — that’s month, not week — down to $129.50.

It’s already state law that children ages 6 to 18  in families receiving TANF must attend school — and parents or guardians attend parent-teacher conferences, or risk a reduction in benefits.

The state’s Department of Health and Human Services withdrew its opposition to SB 132, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, after the bill was amended to exclude children diagnosed with a handicap or learning disability. Parents also get a reprieve if they’ve made efforts to help their child in school such as arranging for tutoring or attending a parent-teacher conference.

To punish the entire family because a child fails to make adequate progress just seems wrong. What if the child has an undiagnosed learning disability? What if the teacher’s not the best — or dislikes the child for some reason? (It happens.) How can you expect a parent who may be trying to work two jobs, or care for younger children at home, to make every parent-teacher conference or provide the support the child needs? What if the parent has a learning disability or is a school drop-out?

And how will parents react when their benefits are cut because Johnny couldn’t pass a class?

Campfield, for those who don’t follow Tennessee state politics (or missed Jay Leno’s jokes about the state senator) has already gained notoriety as the author of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill introduced in 2011, which didn’t pass. In February, he proposed a revised version that would require schools to tell parents if children discuss being gay with a teacher or counselor.

Measures that encourage, not punish, children and families seem like a better choice to promote education. Tennessee Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat from Knoxville, agrees. “Every teacher knows that if you want to move these kids forward, you’re not going to do it by punishing,” Johnson, a former teacher, told WATE news in Knoxville. “You’re going to do it by giving them the tools they need to succeed, giving their parents the tools they need to succeed.

“Putting the burden of whether your baby sister has dinner on what your grades are to a 10-year-old, to me is unacceptable,” Johnson said.

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.