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Punishment Is Not the Answer

April 8, 2013

The other day in social studies class, my students and I were reviewing a couple of practice questions for our upcoming standardized test. Here is one of the practice test questions we discussed:

Most of the students immediately identified a house, sandwich, and shirt as personal needs, not wants (given, this question would likely fall into the “easy” category). We spent some time talking about why it’s important to be able to distinguish between needs and wants. What makes something qualify as a “personal need?” My 5th graders determined that people need food, shelter, and clothing to survive.

Some of our government leaders have recently introduced a bill aimed at reducing Tennesseans’ access to funds for these personal needs, which my 10 and 11 year-old students have identified as essential for survival. House Bill 261/Senate Bill 132 requires students to maintain “satisfactory academic progress in school” in order for their families to continue receiving full federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds. The bill loosely defines satisfactory progress as meeting attendance requirements, scoring proficient or advanced on state standardized tests, and maintaining a passing grade point average. If students fail to meet these standards, their families will lose money they use to purchase essential items for survival.

As a teacher, the mere thought of this bill incites a wide range of emotions. First and foremost is a fear that this could actually happen. I teach in a high-poverty school, and most of my students’ families are unable to provide for their children’s basic needs. A significant part of my job is to work with families to find resources to meet food, clothing, and shelter needs. It’s important to me that children have their basic needs met when they enter our school building. Worries about if they will get to eat tonight or if their sleeping arrangement will be safe inhibit students’ ability to learn. Further jeopardizing the welfare of students and families who are already struggling is simply immoral.

We can all agree that the state of education in Tennessee is not what it should be. Our students are performing well below students in other parts of the country. I agree with our leaders–this issue is urgent, important, and complex. However, I could never support any legislation that penalizes students for their circumstances. Children do not ask to be born into poverty. They spend their lives working persistently to break out of the poverty cycle. By reducing TANF assistance to families based on low academic achievement, the Tennessee legislature would be further entrenching impoverished children in this vicious cycle. Punishing struggling families is not the answer. It shouldn’t even be part of the discussion.

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