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In response to a new legislative proposal in Tennessee that seeks to tie student performance to welfare benefits, David Phillippe at Punditocracy wrote a critical response yesterday deeming the measure a “poverty punishment policy.” As a former public school teacher in a low income school district, some disturbing aspects regarding education in America lead me to disagree with Phillippe’s assessment.

The crux of my argument is based on personal observations—one teacher in one school—but I strongly believe the trends I witnessed are not isolated to one school, one county, or one state. My experience was simply a sad case study, clearly indicative of the two most pervasive problems facing America’s future generation of coddled underachievers.

Problem #1: There is no longer a way for schools and teachers to hold students accountable–at least not without activating a ridiculous self-destruct sequence.

Federal funding for public schools has been tied to graduation rates since 2001. This system creates a disincentive to hold students accountable for poor academic performance (i.e. holding them back a grade). Instead, schools are doing everything they can to pass students along so the on-time graduation rate does not suffer. Students are no longer accountable, but teachers and schools are. I wholeheartedly believe that the increased focus on teacher accountability (and consequently decreased focus on student accountability) is the primary reason America has fallen so far and so fast in world education rankings. The correlation is not coincidental.

Problem #2: An overwhelming number of students receiving taxpayer subsidized free and reduced school breakfasts and lunches own smartphones.

In fact, I was occasionally ridiculed by these same students because I didn’t have the newest iphone, ipod, etc. Many of these students also told me about how my homework assignments were in direct conflict with their Xbox time. The point is, many of these poor students are “American poor,” not third-world or even second-world poor. As someone with generally liberal political sensibilities, it is tough for me to make that statement, but hopefully my record of support for social security, unemployment benefits, SNAP, etc. lends me a little credibility when it comes to this ugly assessment. As a country we can continue to perpetuate this kind of semi-comfortable poverty with a continuation of the status quo, or we can attempt to break generational poverty cycles with new ideas that, while potentially irritable for some in the short-term, have the potential to do something critically important for society as a whole: hold a defined segment of failing parents accountable for their lack of parenting.

I understand the critics’ response to this novel idea. It is typically an emotional reaction to legislative measures that “unfairly target” (i.e. discriminate against) the poor. But examine any standard test scores or other measurements of academic progress and you will see that the one subgroup consistently bringing down school/county/state/national averages is the “low-income” subgroup. This is completely irrespective of racial demographics. For many reasons, poor students struggle academically. Any attempts, legislative or otherwise, to enhance the performance of these students (rather than letting them fall through gaping educational cracks) ought to be met with enthusiasm from liberal advocates of social safety nets. After all, the best safety net for poor kids is an education.

The Right Question: If schools cannot or will not hold students accountable, who should?

Parents have far more leverage than a school when it comes to holding that child accountable for satisfactory academic progress. Ultimately, parents are the ones who need to be held accountable for their children, legally, academically, morally, etc.

The Solution: Don’t just blame parents; incentivize them.

The best answer to fast-track a return to American educational glory has to be a focus on parent accountability. And it only makes sense to start with the parents of the students who are consistently failing to meet the standards set and taught in public schools. Considering that the parents of these students are also the beneficiaries of government assistance (based on data from the low income subgroup), it also makes perfect sense to incentivize their children’s satisfactory academic performance.

Bear in mind that many of the parents that would be subject to these legislative measures are poor because they are uneducated. It is often the case that their own parents were uneducated as well, and the appreciation for the inherent value of education is not something these families ordinarily pass down from generation to generation. In other cases, uneducated poor parents who do in fact see the value in education might feel like hypocrites when it comes to extolling the virtues of learning to their kids. But none of this matters. What matters is getting these parents to start encouraging their kids to get to school on time, to behave in class, and to study more. Parent/teacher conferences have been the only tool available for accomplishing this imperative and they continue to fail miserably because parents see the problem as the school’s or their child’s. The conferences do take place at the school after all, and the parents are rarely,  if ever, challenged regarding their parenting methods. The parents do, however, understand their own finances. They can be motivated experts when it comes to navigating complex bureaucracies in order to qualify for state and federal benefits. Simple economic principles therefore imply that the best, and perhaps only, practical way to reach many of these poor failing parents is through what they do value, their welfare benefits.

Proposed legislation tying welfare benefits to academic performance does not seem to be asking for anything more than what has been expected of American students for over one hundred years: that is for students to meet the minimum standards. No one can legitimately make the argument that today’s poorest students are in a significantly worse position to do this than poor students of past generations. In fact, with schools designing curriculums which cater to every student’s “individual learning style” and the entire knowledge of the world at their fingertips (even at home through government subsidized internet service), the opportunity for success in the twenty first century is arguably greater than it ever has been.

There are some dangerous pitfalls to the kind of legislation for which I am advocating, and for the record, I do not trust the motives of Republican politicians in Tennessee. But what they are doing is still a step in the right direction if we want to see an end to cyclical poverty and an improvement in American education.  The basic idea is simply to improve the academic performance of poor kids by incentivizing the people primarily responsible for that performance. That is not a bad idea, even if the underlying motive is to reduce welfare benefits.

Opponents of incentivized parenting need to consider the prospect of this kind program being successful. What if hundreds or thousands of kids are motivated to succeed by formerly disinterested parents simply because it would be the difference between paying the rent or not? What if those same kids go to college and learn first-hand about the value of education, a value their parents never genuinely were able to teach them but they are able to teach their future children? There has never been a more legitimate strategy for breaking the cycle of poverty that so many Americans find themselves in.

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*Note: I am currently researching ways to implement something similar in Georgia. I would like to see a proposal that takes into account attendance and behavior as well. Also, rewarding the parents of students with exceptional attendance, behavior, and grades through increased welfare benefits is another aspect worth exploring, as it could help garner more bipartisan support for such a proposal. Community sponsored parenting classes is yet another idea that could complement an incentivized parenting program. If you have any other suggestions, comments, or criticisms regarding this issue, I would greatly appreciate you voicing those in the comments section below.

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