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Stacy Campfield recently entered a bill for consideration in the Tennessee General Assembly. Campfield is a senator from eastern Tennessee known for legislation that attracts the ire of late-night comedians and satirists across the country.

As a native Tennessean, I’ve apologized, on occasion, for the perception that we’re all backwoods Neanderthals. That perception often results from negative publicity generated by poorly thought out legislation, ignorant commentary, and behavior that suggests that we are regressive.

Today, I’m not apologizing for regressive behavior. I’m speaking out against it.

Senator Stacey Campfield

Stacey Campfield
(photo credit: the Senator’s public Twitter account)

Senator Campfield has introduced a bill that requires students to maintain “satisfactory academic progress” or lose their family’s welfare benefits. I find this wrong on a number of levels.

In Tennessee, welfare recipients are required to participate in a responsibility plan. If you are going to be receiving money from the welfare program, there is no reason why you can’t be expected to provide proof of need and proof of accountability. But this proposed bill expands personal accountability and responsibility to a very strange member of the household: Minors attending school. 

On the Backs of Children

Students discuss evidence

Students in the Classroom (Photo credit: breity)

Think about this: The responsibility for the continuation of much needed benefits, ultimately falls upon the student.

Here’s an excerpt:

This bill adds to the present law requirements for personal responsibility plans by requiring that the parent or other caretaker relative, regardless of age or disabling status, enter a plan that requires the children in the family to both attend and maintain satisfactory academic progress in school. For purposes of this bill, maintenance of satisfactory academic progress in school will be demonstrated by complying with school attendance requirements and receiving a score of proficient or advanced on required state examinations in the subject areas of mathematics and reading or language arts, demonstrating competency as determined by the state board of education on two end of course examinations, or maintaining a grade point average that is sufficient to ascend to the next grade. A student may attend a summer school course in the subject area in which the student has failed or has scored below proficient or failed to demonstrate competency. The student must receive a passing grade in such summer school course to achieve satisfactory academic progress. The requirements of this bill relative to competency on required state examinations or grade point averages shall not apply to students who have Individualized Educational Placements and who are not academically talented or gifted.

Essentially, if you are on welfare and your child is doing poorly in school, your benefits are cut off.

To the untrained mind, this might sound like a good idea. But anyone with experience as a parent realizes that getting your kid to succeed is not completely up to you. There are a hundred variables that are well beyond the control of the parent. In Campfield’s own words, kids are “failing for who knows what reason?” Indeed, Senator.

What If?

This bill makes no allowance for disruptions in the home that can negatively impact grades. A death, a chronic illness, a divorce, domestic violence — any situation that can distract or disturb might result in a slip in grades and a reduction in income.

An Individualized Educational Plan might be in place for some kids. But what about kids who haven’t been diagnosed but already need an IEP? What about the child who is failing, but no one has figured out that he needs glasses or she has ADD or he can’t hear well or she is dyslexic but is doing her best to cover that fact because she is ashamed?

Also not considered: Poor teaching (most teachers rock, some don’t), classroom disruptions like bullying, natural disasters like fires and tornadoes leveling the school or at least a school room, or even something simple like personnel changes (in lower grades, this can have a profound effect). We’ve all had teachers with whom we connect. And we’ve all had teachers who were harder to follow.

My grades demonstrated this even though my parents attended all the meetings, returned all the calls, and stayed on my like a duck on a June-bug. Had my family been on welfare, our income would have been horribly affected, despite the fact that my parents had nothing to do with the fact that my grades dropped.

Should kids keep their grades up despite these things? I’d like to think so. Should those who don’t manage to keep those grades up be penalized by being made responsible for cutting their family’s income? Absolutely not.

Nothing But Downside

How can we justify this sort of responsibility being thrust upon a minor? This bill is tying a family’s income to the academic successes and failures of a child. “Okay, Johnny. Learn your lessons or we don’t eat as well. Don’t sweat it, honey. You can do it. No pressure.”

What pre-teen do you know who can take on stress and responsibility like that? Does this include elementary aged children?

I’ve had conversations with friends and politicians who are afraid that this poorly written bill will reflect so badly upon our state that businesses will go elsewhere.

The problem isn’t “businesses will stay away.” The problem isn’t “Leno is making fun,” or “Colbert reamed us — again.” The problem is that this bill is based on fictional assertions of educational cause and effect that will harm as many as it helps.

What will Campfield say when a child is beaten to death for a non-passing grade that resulted in loss of income for the family?

That’s not good enough. We can and should do better.

For those who think that the education problem is never-ending, you might wish to look again. Educational morass has been defeated. There are success stories. There are other plans and programs that boast far greater success. Many of those plans offer more dollars for success instead of fewer dollars for failure.

Bottom Line: Poorly Written Legislation

The main reason that I find this bill to be flawed is that the bill’s author has failed to defend it in the public forum. Yes, he has been interviewed on several programs and in several news media outlets. However, his responses are consistently illogical.

He complains that parents fail to show up for parent/teacher conferences. Yet this bill is about bad grades, not parent/teacher conferences.

He complains that “bad parents” won’t even return phone calls from the school. Yet this bill is about poor test scores, not poor phone etiquette.

He has a problem with parents allowing kids to come to school at 11am in pajamas. Yet this bill isn’t about attendance or dress code, it’s about whether the student makes it to the next grade level.

Campfield may be a capable senator. I won’t attack his credentials or his qualifications to legislate this material. But his statements are certainly fair game. And they are lacking.

We Can Do Better

We need more creativity, engagement and, above all, funding for education. I homeschool my children and gladly continue to pay taxes for the benefit of public education. Why? Because education of the children of this state is for the greater good.

Senator Campfield’s bill lacks creativity, fails to engage the student/teacher/parent relationship effectively, and doesn’t do a thing about the ridiculously low amounts of money we spend on education across our state.

Tennessee deserves better. Urge your state representative and senator to vote no on this bill.

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Author: Joey Reed

Joey is married to his best friend and they live in Kentucky. Joey serves Mayfield First United Methodist Church, the Purchase District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.