Tennessee lawmaker wants to tie welfare benefits to good grades

A Tennessee lawmaker is pushing a controversial new bill that would tie welfare benefits to students' performance in school.

Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield last week introduced the legislation, which calls for the state to cut welfare benefits to parents whose kids don't do well in class. Critics are already panning the proposal as unfair, and one that could hurt students in the end -- but Campfield is defending his idea, which he says would force parents to take a more active role in their children’s education

“We’re not asking children to re-write the Magna Carta,” Campfield told FoxNews.com Monday. “A D-minus gets you through.”

But state Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the bill 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?” he said.

Currently, parents of children who receive welfare benefits through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program can see their benefits cut by 20 percent if their child doesn't show up for school. Campfield's proposal goes a step further and requires students make "satisfactory academic progress."

If they don't, recipients could see their checks slashed by 30 percent.

“The misconception is that I’m cutting lunch programs or that this is going to hurt the handicapped or cut into programs for special-needs kids,” Campfield said. “It’s not.”

"Satisfactory academic progress" would be measured based on whether a student is advancing through grade levels and how they do on standardized testing.

“Nothing motivates people like money,” Campfield said. “We have done very little to hold parents accountable for their child’s performance. It’s unacceptable to have this generational cycle of poverty continue.”

The impact of the bill could be widespread. Tennessee had 155,281 people on welfare in 2011. Only four states in the nation -- California, New York, Ohio and Michigan -- ranked higher in per-capita welfare recipients.

Welfare payments are generally received once a month. Those applying for assistance are given a basic means test to determine what they need. The “needs standard” includes food, clothing, fuel for heating and cooking along with electricity, household supplies and shelter. Each state regulates their own programs and how much money is given out is based on geography, cost of living, employment and educational opportunities in that state.

Campfield refers to success in public schools as a "three-legged stool” – schools, teachers and parents. He said schools and teachers have done their part and now it’s time for parents to do theirs.

“For a long time parents have gotten away with doing absolutely nothing to help their children,” Campfield said. “That’s child abuse to me.”

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, the state had a 87.2 percent high school graduation rate in 2012, up from 85.5 percent in 2011. The state’s rate is well above the national average of 78.2 percent.

It is estimated that if Tennessee can up its graduation rate to 90 percent, the state could see a $90 million increase in annual earnings and could enjoy $16 million more in additional tax revenues, according to a March 20, 2012 article in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

It is not yet known how successful Campfield’s push to tie welfare benefits to good grades will be.

Campfield does not have children.