Legislation to cut welfare benefits of parents with children performing poorly in school has cleared committees of both the House and Senate after being revised to give the parents several ways to avoid the reductions.
The state Department of Human Services, which worked with Republican sponsors to draft the changes, withdrew its previous opposition to SB132. But the measure was still criticized by Democrats, including Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.
As amended, it would not apply when a child has a handicap or learning disability or when the parent takes steps to try improving the youngster’s school performance — such as signing up for a “parenting class,” arranging a tutoring program or attending a parent-teacher conference.
Dennis told the House Health Subcommittee the measure now only applies to “parents who do nothing.” He described the measure as “a carrot and stick approach.”
Johnson, a teacher, said the bill will still put “the burden of the family budget on children’s performance in school” and that would mean a “huge stress on a young person who is trying to do what he can.”
She also said the legislation targets “struggling families,” while there is nothing that addresses higher-income parents who ignore their children’s school problems.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said parents of children with “undiagnosed learning disabilities” could suffer because of the bill and, even if a child is performing poorly in school, “the kid still has to eat.”
Turner also said the bill apparently does not apply to home-schooled children and, “I guess a person who wants to get around this just can say ‘I’m home schooling my children’.”
Dennis said he was surprised by Johnson’s comments because “most educators I’ve talked with” believe parental involvement is one of the biggest problems in teaching and the bill is a way to encourage parental involvement. And he told Turner that the bill could help prod parents into having children assessed so that any learning disability can be diagnosed.
The measure inspired much less debate when Campfield brought it before in the Senate Health Committee.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson cast the only vote against the bill there, but did not speak. Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson of Hixson said he was concerned about the original bill, but feels “much more comfortable” with the revised version.
The measure faces another committee hearing in the House, but is now clear for a floor vote in the Senate.