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Grades-for-aid? Lawmaker defends controversial welfare plan

A Republican state senator in Tennessee defended controversial legislation that would tether welfare payments to a child’s performance in school, even calling
AP Photo/Erik Schelzig
AP Photo/Erik Schelzig

A Republican state senator in Tennessee defended controversial legislation that would tether welfare payments to a child’s performance in school, even calling the proposal a potential national model to break families out of “generations of poverty.”

“We need to do something to motivate these parents to see how important an education is, and unfortunately, the only tool we have left is this cash payment that we make to these families,” Republican State Sen. Stacey Campfield told Martin Bashir. (A portion of the interview aired on Tuesday's broadcast and the full version is below.)

The proposal would reduce temporary financial assistance payments to qualifying families by 30% if children fail to achieve certain academic standards. Bashir repeatedly asked the Republican lawmaker to justify the logic behind a plan that would place a family’s well-being on the shoulders of a child already at a socioeconomic disadvantage. “How is a child of age five supposed to carry that burden for the family’s finances when the child has no control over the circumstances in which it’s living?”

Campfield, who called “family” the most important leg in a three-legged education stool, cited “40 countries” where similar systems have worked and stressed that he is not setting the academic bar very high. It is unclear what countries he is including in that count.

“Like I said, I don’t want these kids to be rocket scientists,” Campfield said. “I don’t want them to split the atom. Listen, passing a grade is not too high a standard. To say, ‘Listen, if your kid shows up at school at 11 o’clock in your pajamas, that kid is not ready for school.’ Families have to take a responsibility for having the kids prepared to go to school.”

“These children that you’re targeting are often already victims of neglect," Bashir argued. "They’ve often been the subject of abuse within their own households; they have no control whatsoever over the circumstances in which they live,” he said. “How is the five-year-old child supposed to perform even at the bare minimum that you expect and if the child doesn’t, you penalize the child?”

Campfield was resolute, acknowledging that some poor students may come from difficult circumstances but insisting the prospect of a financial penalty could possibly protect the student from further abuse.

“If you’re a bad parent who’s abusing the child, guess what, that child is going to do badly,” he said. “I would hope that they’re not going to abuse the child so the child would do better and then the payments wouldn’t be cut.”

Bashir also challenged the implication that teachers would be willing to mark students down with the knowledge that a poor grade might result in deeper poverty for a family.

“Is it going to be perfect, is every child going to be saved? No” Campfield said, before adding, “The give-a-man-a-fish system is not working.”

Campfield bristled when Bashir asked if he had children. “I have about as many children as Barack Obama has guns. So no,” he said. “Yet he still brings legislation regarding that. I have no problem with that. He has a right to do that just like I have a right to do this to have kids.”

Before the interview ended, Campfield--who pushed a failed “don’t say gay” in schools bill in Tennessee-- was also asked about a pair of controversial statements he has made about homosexuality: comparing homosexuality and bestiality; and suggesting that the origin of AIDS may have been sexual intercourse between a monkey and a human. He stood by both comments.

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