If Kids Fail a Grade, Should Parents Have to Give Back Welfare?

A Tennessee bill could reduce a family’s federal welfare benefits if their child is falling behind in school.
Parents may be taking out their checkbooks to pay for their kids' poor test scores. (Photo: Rachel Weill)
Mar 28, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Some Tennessee parents better make their children study or they could face harsh consequences.

If a bill currently in the Tennessee legislature becomes law, it would shrink federal welfare benefits by 30 percent for families if their children fail a grade in school.

“It’s really just something to try to get parents involved with their kids,” state Senator Stacey Campfield, the legislation’s sponsor, told local media. “We have to do something.”

Tennessee already has a law that that hinges on a student’s truancy. It calls for a 25 percent reduction in some government benefits. Campfield’s bill was amended to limit the number of penalties to parents who do not enroll their child in tutoring, attend a parenting course or attend parent-teacher conferences. Special need students are also exempt.

In an email to TakePart, Campfield said that he isn't proposing any cuts to food stamps, school lunches or any food programs. It also would not effect any housing voucher or credit given by federal or state government.

"If your child is failing their classes, if your child is not showing up to school, if you child has quit school, that is unacceptable," Campfield said. "It is highly unlikely that child will ever escape poverty. That to me borders on child abuse."

Hitting the parents’ pocketbooks may seem like an extreme measure, but Campfield may be on to something. According to a recent national survey, the number one reason students drop out of school is the absence of parental support or encouragement.

Repeated studies show that kids do better in school when their parents read with them and engage them in conversation at a young age.

The theory is so widely held that Providence, Rhode Island, recently received a $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge to see if it really works. The Mayors Challenge website states: “By their fourth birthday, children who grow up in low-income households will have heard thirty-million fewer words than their middle- and high-income peers.”

The city plans to use a small recording device to measure “word exposure for children (ages zero to four) in low-income households. Subsequently, the program will also offer coaching and tools to help parents close the word gap.

But parents shouldn’t forget to help educate their kids at home after preschool and elementary school.

The Association for Middle Level Education notes that “parent involvement is important to the educational success of a young adolescent and yet generally declines when a child enters the middle grades.” It recommends six activities to assist parents to become involved: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making and collaborating with the community.

Campfield’s bill takes policy in regards to parent engagement one step further, but parenting has been a key focus of state and local governments’ education policies since the 1970s.

In 1973, Florida mandated that all school districts form school advisory committees either at the local school or the school district level that represent the community. Students and parents must be members, and are obligated to participate in the Annual Report of School Progress that is sent to the parents.

Missouri’s state Department of Education created the “Parents as Teachers” program that helps train parents to teach their children at home in skills learned at home.

Numerous educators agree that many parents simply don’t know the importance of education in a child’s life because they may not have learned that from their parents. They have to be taught that learning doesn’t just happen in school but also at home, too. It’s time for that lesson to be learned, Campfield suggests.

In Tennessee, Campfield sees his bill as a way to break “the cycle of poverty,” he wrote on his blog. He calls education a “three legged stool” that consists of parents, teachers and schools.

“If passed this could be a great step in ending generational poverty caused by lack of education,” he wrote.