Tennessee bill: Welfare benefits depend on child’s school performance

theGRIO REPORT - A piece of Tennessee legislation will penalize low-income families by reducing their welfare benefits if their child performs poorly in school if it is advanced...

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A new piece of legislation, if passed, will penalize low-income families in Tennessee by reducing their welfare benefits if their child performs poorly in school.

Sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) and Rep. Vance Dennis (R-Savannah), the bill “requires the reduction of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) payments for parents or caretakers of TANF recipients whose children fail to maintain satisfactory progress in school.”

Should a low-income family’s child not meet satisfactory levels in the subject areas of mathematics and reading or language arts, the family’s welfare benefits will be reduced by 20 percent.

The legislation (Senate Bill 132, House Bill 261) applies to low-income families, with no mention of penalties to middle or high-income families whose children perform poorly in school.

Rep. Dennis told the House Health Subcommittee the measure applies to “parents who do nothing,” reports Knoxnews.com.  Dennis described the bill as “a carrot and stick approach.”

Bill branded ‘discriminatory’

Tennessee state representative Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) calls the bill “discriminatory.”

“It’s just one more way to punish families who have fallen on hard times,” Johnson told theGrio. “I don’t believe for a second this will be anything to improve a child’s education.”

As a high school special education teacher, Johnson said this kind of bill is not what at-risk students need.

“To add the responsibility of the family budget on these kids, it’s not going to help these kids.  It’s not going to move them forward,” Johnson said.

“[The bill] sets up a terrible relationship between families and educators,” Johnson continued.  “It sets up animosity between school and home.”

Johnson recommends after school or weekend programs, such as “community schools” where parents spend time with their children and can see what they are doing and how they are doing in school.

Representative Mike Turner (D-Old Hickory) told theGrio this is just one example of Tennessee legislature that is “trying to set back the working class people.”

Amendments may or may not make a difference

Amendments have been made to the original legislation to exclude students with learning disabilities and those who have an individualized education program (IEP) from being penalized for not maintaining satisfactory academic progress. Instead, special education students will be measured on school attendance.

“There are no amendments that will make this bill okay,” Johnson said. “There just aren’t.”

Further amendments also provide four ways the reduction can be restored once it is applied to a family’s payments.  Attending two parent teacher conferences, eight hours of parenting classes, enrolling the child in a tutoring program, or enrolling the child in summer school are the available options.

“There’s all kinds of loopholes,” Rep. Turner said, noting that homeschooling is addressed in the Senate version but is not addressed in the House bill.  “No Democrats will vote for the bill.”

The House Health Committee, of which Johnson, Dennis, and Turner are members, is set to vote on the bill April 3.

If passed, SB 132 will take effect on July 1, 2013, just in time for the 2013-2014 school year.

theGrio.com reached out to Sen. Campfield and Rep. Dennis for comment, but our calls have not yet been returned.

Follow Carrie Healey on Twitter @CarrieHeals