State Sen. Stacey Campfield has proposed legislation that would cut welfare benefits to parents whose children fail to make “satisfactory academic progress” in school, a move he says should inspire parents to take a more active role in helping students learn.
While the Knoxville Republican says SB132 is a step toward “breaking the cycle of poverty,” Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, says it could make life more difficult for parents and children who are already struggling.
Campfield said in an interview that the best way to “break the cycle of poverty” is through education and a child’s success in schooling rests on a “three-legged stool” – teachers, schools and parents.(Note: His blog post on the bill is HERE.)
He said Tennessee has already embarked on education reforms designed to improve the quality of teachers and the quality of schools. There should also be a focus on the “third leg,” parents, he said.
“We’ve set the tone (through legislation) to push and improve teachers and schools,” Campfield said. “Now is the time to push those parents. This bill is giving them motivation to do more to help their children learn in school.”
“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,” the senator said.
O’Neal stressed that the Commission on Children and Youth has not taken an official position on the bill and will not until a Feb. 22 meeting of the child advocacy group, but said Campfield’s proposal raises concerns on several fronts.
The bill applies to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Current law says parents or guardians of children who are receiving benefits can lose 20 percent of those benefits if a child does not attend school. Campfield’s bill adds a new requirement that the child make “satisfactory academic progress” as well and raises the penalty to 30 percent of benefits.
“The maximum benefit for a mother with two children is $185 a month,” O’Neal said in an interview. “That’s already low. If you take $60 plus dollars away, you’re just further limiting people who already have extremely few resources… It’s just piling on.”
The bill defines “satisfactory academic progress” as advancing from one grade to the next and “receiving a score of proficient or advanced on required state examinations in the subject areas of mathematics and reading/language arts.” Those who fail to meet “competency” standards on end-of-course exams could also be deemed fall short of “satisfactory academic progress.”
Special education students “who are not academically talented or gifted” would be exempted from the requirements.
O’Neal said the definition could take in students who are trying their best but are simply unable to meet standards through no fault of their own or their parents.
“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 said.
Further, O’Neal said the bill, if enacted, would create a new paperwork burden on schools and the Department of Human Services, which oversees the welfare program, to determine when children are making the “satisfactory academic progress” as required.
Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said he would oppose the bill because it would “stack the deck against at-risk children.”
“How does Sen. Campfield expect a child to do his homework when there is no food on the dinner table,” Kyle said.
O’Neal also voiced misgivings about another Campfield bill, SB30, which is intended to crack down on those who use their electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards to purchase inappropriate items. EBT cards are like a pre-paid debit card and issued for both TANF benefits and food stamps.
Current law limits what can be purchased with the cards. Campfield’s bill provides more detail and sets up penalties both for those who accept the cards for inappropriate purchases and those who use them. Various news reports and a Beacon Center of Tennessee review of EBT data in Knoxville and Chattanooga last fall have found cases of the cards used in strip clubs, bars, tobacco stores, expensive hotels and the like.
“This is just restricting it to those who are truly in need versus those who are abusing the system,” said Campfield, adding that he knows food stamp recipients who support his proposal because those using the cards inappropriately “give them a bad name.”
O’Neal said she suspects the reported abuses are “extremely isolated cases.” Some may be explained as cases where the recipients got funds from a business using the card, then used the money to buy food, clothing or other necessities – not to make a purchase from the business that shows up on card records, she said.
Both Campfield and O’Neal noted that federal law on the matter changed fairly recently. O’Neal suggested that the Department of Human Services be given time to review those changes and adapt with the goal of eliminating misuse of EBT card while Campfield said the changes open the door for legislation such as his bill and that DHS officials have indicated they will work with him on the proposed legislation.