SADOW: How About We Tie Welfare Benefits To Kids’ School Performance?

With the request of a Tennessee lawmaker to base receipt of public cash assistance for families with school-age children on whether the children make passing grades in school, this invites Louisiana policy-makers to consider the question and to review the state’s own efforts in tying receipt of these benefits to attendance.

The proposed Volunteer State law would mandate that children at least pass their courses or tests or else the family might be penalized up to 30 percent of that benefit. It would not affect non-cash assistance programs, but only those like Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program, which is designed to last but a couple of consecutive years. Its theory is to motivate parents to become more involved with their children’s education to improve their performance.

Louisiana, like Tennessee, joins the majority of states (and more keep getting added all of the time) in that there is some attempt to tie school attendance to receiving such assistance. In order to qualify for Louisiana FITAP, which only may go to families with children, if children are school-aged the parent(s) must assent to a Family Service Agreement document that, among others things, provides penalties for truancy among those children, where truancy is defined in public schools as being absent or excessively tardy at least five times a term. On the first offense, the family is to lose a month’s worth, one-twelfth, of FITAP benefits; a second draws another two month’s worth and the third kicks them out of the program for a minimum of three months.

But consider that the average benefit of a Louisiana recipient family is $200, this means that even two violations in a year costs just $50 a month spaced out. The real sting is by suspension of benefits for at least three months. There are also sanctions on parents for truancy regardless of whether they receive FITAP, and potentially on the children outside of school by suspension of driving privileges. Therefore, whether this standard provides much motivation presently is debatable, and likely in an aggregate sense will continue to decline as have the number of cases continues to fall in the state; at the beginning of the fiscal year, only a little over 10,000 families received FITAP.

Most tellingly, at the beginning of the fiscal year, not a single case was terminated because of violation of attendance policies. This can tell us any one of a few things: (1) the policy really motivates attendance, (2) other factors related to truancy penalties, such as the parental sanctions of community service, carry the load in discouraging insufficient attendance, (3) program enforcement is too relaxed, and/or (4) not the first but a combination of the second and third reasons. On the whole, the evidence seems to be that the FITAP penalty does not seem to be very significant in motivating attendance.

Now consider the assumption behind the truancy penalty – academic success comes by being present. But being present and making an effort to succeed are different things, and the theory of the inadequate performance penalty as forwarded in the proposed Tennessee legislation is that insufficient effort is being made to succeed, despite the dire warning no doubt regularly issued by schools that the lack of a high school diploma will endanger seriously life prospects, and thus greater parental involvement is needed.

Again, whether this kind of law would have a significant impact given the environment involved is debatable. Given the creation of a welfare underclass, now producing its fifth generation in the most extreme cases, where parents have little education, all some can give is moral support. Additionally, that kind of background and previous schooling in the case of children not bright to begin with creates a small subset that simply are not smart or prepared enough to pass enough classes, and would face a penalty despite best efforts. Also, inadequate teaching can cause failure even with good effort by students. Finally, there are those with the brains to avoid this penalty but where lack of discipline in schools creates too much terror and/or peer pressure against academic success for them to be able to concentrate on achieving that success.

Yet issues that impede success, with the exception of incapable students disproportionately likely to come from households that would qualify for FITAP, are external to that idea and at least in part, such as the revamp of teacher evaluation presently going on and implementation of voucher-aided and other forms of school choice, are being addressed that would remove unfairness from a program linking academic performance to FITAP receipt. And the fact is that, despite increasing rates of graduation and decreasing rates of dropping out, Louisiana still ranks lowly among the states in that rate at just above 70 percent. Statistics also suggest that the rate is even lower among FITAP qualifiers.

Creation of a program where a small portion of FITAP benefits, say a quarter, which is from a temporary program in any event, is withheld for the duration of a year if a child shows negative academic improvement in tested subjects from the previous year, neither is unreasonable nor unfair to the small population receiving it – especially as it seems these children perform disproportionately more poorly so it should be easier to spur improvement from them. Even a small boost brought by a program like this is better than none, given the dismal graduation marks. If it does not deserve passage this upcoming session by the Legislature, it certainly deserves study.

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