After about an hour of impassioned Senate floor debate, Sen. Stacey Campfield today abandoned for the year an effort to enact legislation that calls for cutting welfare benefits to parents of children who fail in school.
Several Republican senators declared during the debate that they intended to vote against the Knoxville lawmaker’s bill (SB132). Campfield also acknowledged that Gov. Bill Haslam was opposing the legislation.
The senator acknowledged that critics of the bill had raised “good points” and the debate showed “we all have true passion to get parents involved” and “we have to do something.”
But instead of pushing for a vote – as he had indicated earlier he would do – Campfield said there should be a study of the legislation and other options to enhance parental involvement over the summer and fall. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said the study could be arranged.
Senators voicing objections to the bill – which had cleared Senate committees with unanimous Republican support – included Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville; Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville; Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville; and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.
Gardenhire said, for example, that he saw “unintended consequences” if the measure was enacted when children would be blamed for a loss of family welfare income and beaten.
NASHVILLE – Legislation tying parents’ welfare benefits to their children’s performance in school advanced another step Wednesday despite contentions that it amounts to a “mean-spirited” attack against vulnerable families.
The House Health Committee approved the bill (HB261) on a 10-8 vote after extended debate, including testimony from spokeswomen from a social workers organization and a group advocating for domestic violence victims.
Both opposed the measure, which would cut benefits of parents of a child failing in school by 30 percent in some circumstances.
The measure is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor Thursday. (UPDATE Note: The vote was postpone for a week, until next Thursday.)
The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, said the bill as amended would apply only to the “worst of the worst” parents. The bill does not apply when a child has a learning disability or a physical handicap. As amended, it also allows the penalty to be avoided if the parent attends two parent teacher conferences, an eight-hour parenting class, arranges tutoring or enrolls the child in summer school.
“What I keep hearing from teachers and educators is that we need to do whatever we can to make parents more accountable,” said Dennis. “This bill does just that.”
But critics argued the bill effectively makes a child responsible for a family’s financial well-being, increasing stress on the youths.
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, a teacher, said some children could even face physical threats.
“I know it will be putting some of my kids in danger if their grades go down (and benefit checks go down because of it),” she said.
Similar concerns were voiced by Kathy Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. She envisioned situations with a mother leaving an abusive situation, causing stress on her children that causes their school performance to plummet – then seeing family income cut to create still more stress.
“It’s just mean-spirited,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville.
But Dennis and some other Republicans on the committee said any pressure will be on parents, who need prodding to help their children get an education.
“I think we’re putting the burden squarely on the shoulders of the parents,” said Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville.
Rep. Barry Doss, R-Leoma, rejected contentions that the bill could leave some children hungry.
“I’m more worried about a child starving for a lifetime (because of not getting an education) rather than for a few days,” Doss said.
All Democrats on the commtttee voted against the bill, joined by two Republicans. All 10 yes votes came from Republicans.
Gov. Bill Haslam, meanwhile, has told reporters he has misgivings about the bill — enough that he would consider vetoing it should the legislation reach his desk.
“Listen, I believe in incentives for the right type of thing,” the governor said. “I’m not sure you have the direct connection there between children’s grades and parents receiving benefits. There’s too many things that can be a disconnect there.”
A state Senate committee passed an amended version of a bill reducing federal welfare benefits for families with students who fail a grade in school, reports The Tennessean. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, would reduce a parent’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families payments by up to 30 percent for students who fail a grade. It was amended to limit maximum penalties to parents who do not attend parent-teacher conferences, enroll their child in tutoring or attend a parenting course.
Special needs students would be exempt from the law. The original legislation garnered national attention, although current Tennessee law already allows for a 25 percent reduction in some benefits based on a student’s truancy rate.
After the legislation passed out of the Senate Health Committee in a 7-1 vote, the Knoxville Republican said his intent was to help parents give their children the best education possible.
“It’s really just something to try to get parents involved with their kids,” he said. “We have to do something.”
In an email reported by WTVF-TV in Nashville, an official of Tennessee’s biggest for-profit virtual school suggests that teachers erase bad grades records for some students. At the center of the controversy is the Tennessee Virtual Academy — a for-profit, online public school that Republican lawmakers touted as a way to improve education in Tennessee. Two years ago, state lawmakers voted to let K12 Inc. open the school, using millions of taxpayer dollars.
But, now, those lawmakers are concerned about standardized test results that put it among the worst schools in the state.
In fact, the email suggests that even school leaders are becoming increasingly concerned by how their students’ grades may look to parents and the public.
“That is not something I would ever be told in my school — I mean, it’s just not acceptable,” said state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat who is also a career teacher. “Quite honestly, I was horrified.”
The email — labeled “important — was written in December by the Tennessee Virtual Academy’s vice principal to middle school teachers.
“After … looking at so many failing grades, we need to make some changes before the holidays,” the email begins.
Among the changes: Each teacher “needs to take out the October and September progress [reports]; delete it so that all that is showing is November progress.”
…”And that’s cheating in your mind?” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
“In my mind, sure. I mean, yes.”
The email adds, “This cannot be late!”
“To come in and say ‘everybody who made failing grades the first two months, we need to delete those grades,’ to me that’s a huge issue,” Johnson added.
And the suggestions from K12 leaders don’t end there.
In traditional classrooms, if students score a 60 on one test and a 90 on a second test, they’re stuck with a 75 average. But the email suggests that teachers erase the bad grades, leaving students with just the good grades.
The email continues, “If you have given an assignment and most of your students failed that assignment, then you need to take that grade out.”
K12 officials refused to sit down to answer our questions, but the Tennessee Virtual Academy’s principal said in an email that the goal was to “more accurately recognize students’ current progress.”
“By going back into our school’s electronic grading system and recording students’ most recent progress score (instead of taking the average throughout the semester) we could more accurately recognize students’ current progress in their individualized learning program,” principal Josh Williams said in the statement.
“This also helped differentiate those and identify those who needed instructional intervention and remediation.”
— Note: The email text is HERE.
From Richard Locker:
The Tennessee legislature made two changes in the state’s lottery scholarship program today – allowing the scholarships for summer school for the first time and limiting their use to 120 hours of academic credit in most cases.
The changes are effective for students who received their first Hope scholarships in the fall of 2009 and thereafter.
“I think this is a step in the right direction. It encourages students to move at a faster pace,” said state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, the bill’s Senate sponsor.
The Senate approved the bill 27-1 this afternoon and sent it to Gov. Bill Haslam, who applauded the bill’s passage and will sign it into law. Haslam proposed the measure (HB2010) allowing the lottery-funded scholarships for summer school, and the legislature added the 120-hour limit to deal with a deficit between lottery proceeds and the costs of the scholarships.
Lawmakers had also considered raising the high school grade-point average required to qualify for Hope scholarships, from 3.0 to 3.2 but it appears that measure won’t pass this year.
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said the 120 hour limit will mean some students will exhaust their lottery scholarships before obtaining undergraduate degrees. He said the average Tennessee public university student graduates with 133 hours of credit.
See also the News Sentinel report, HERE, which focuses on the 120-hour limit.