By Erik Schelzig
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee House committee on Tuesday recommended passing a bill that would dock the welfare payments of parents of children who fail at a school despite Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s opposition to the measure.
The House Government Operations Committee voted 8-4 to give a positive recommendation to the bill sponsored by Rep. Vance Dennis of Savannah even after hearing from a representative from Haslam’s office that the governor has serious concerns about the bill.
House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican, has also raised concerns about the measure that would cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefits by 30 percent if a child fails to advance to the next grade.
The money could be earned back if a parent attends two conferences with teachers, takes parenting classes or enrolls the child in tutoring programs or summer school.
Rep. Joshua Evans said he agreed with the goals of the bill.
“I deal with families it seems like every week … that at least give the appearance that they care more about their electronics and cell phones and other things than they do their kids,” said Evans, R-Greenbrier. “I think that’s really unfortunate. I hope that’s not how they feel, but that’s how they appear to feel.”
“Sometimes the way we get people’s attention is their pocketbook,” he said. “And I think this is an attempt to do that.”
Democratic Rep. Johnnie Turner of Memphis rejected the notion that lawmakers can “legislate parental involvement.”
“I know the limitations poor people have,” she said. “Many times they don’t have the electronics my colleague alluded to. They need to try to work two and three jobs.”
Republican Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge said the burden wouldn’t be too high for parents to regain the full TANF benefit.
“They have to take off work twice to go talk about their child concerning education,” Ragan said.
About 52,800 families currently receive TANF benefits, according to the state Department of Human Services. The agency does not keep track of how many of those families include children who would be affected by the bill.
Haslam told reporters earlier this week that he opposes the measure because “there’s too many other reasons that could cause a child to struggle in school.”
“We are all working to have more parental involvement in children’s education,” he said. “But to have that direct link there, when there’s so many other factors, is worrisome to me.”
Harwell, the House speaker, said last week that she shared those concerns with the governor, though she said she understood some of her colleagues who believe “perhaps we’re giving government assistance and people are not living up to the responsibilities they have.”
“However, we don’t ever want to hurt a child in the process of trying to make parents more responsible,” she said.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville applauded the governor for opposing the bill.
“I give the governor credit for standing up and doing the right thing on this bill,” he said. “I’m here to support my governor.”