Seems that bad ideas never die. They just come back in new guises. Thus we have DC Councilmember David Catania recycling the notion that poor parents should lose their public benefits if they don’t take specific steps to ensure their kids get educated.
Two years ago, Councilmembers Kwame Brown and Marion Barry proposed a bill that would have denied benefits to TANF parents unless they attended all PTA and parent-teacher meetings. Only exceptions were absences for “legitimate reasons” that could be documented.
No apparent awareness of the full range of barriers to compliance, e.g., non-emergency personal and family health problems, lack of child care, language barriers. But advocates raised them, and the sponsors had second thoughts.
Now Councilmember Catania wants to impose tougher financial penalties on parents whose children skip school, including (here it comes again) loss of welfare benefits. Maybe ultimately some jail time too.
“We’ve been soft on this issue too long,” he says. Let’s take our cue from what they do in Pima County, Arizona. Arizona is so enlightened on solutions to complex policy issues.
I’ve never been a parent. But my distinct impression — based on, among other things, my own youthful behavior — is that parents have relatively limited control over what their kids do and don’t do once they reach the age where chronic truancy is feasible and, to some, attractive.
Councilmember Catania apparently thinks otherwise. After all, the proposal is grounded in the notion that a large number of parents just shrug their shoulders when they’re told their kids didn’t show up for classes. If we wield a big enough stick, they’ll act on the problem.
What, I wonder, are poor parents supposed to do. Even if they’ve got the time and wherewithal for transportation to take their kids to school, what can they do to make sure they’ll stay there? If they tell their kids how important it is to get an education, will those given to truancy listen?
Catania’s plan won’t just punish parents for behavior they probably can’t control. It will punish all the children in the family. It will also exacerbate conditions that conduce to truancy, e.g., acute financial problems, instability, family stress and resulting frictions (or worse).
Well, this is an election year. And here in the District, Councilmember-candidates have seized on the very real problem of juvenile delinquency as a way of demonstrating their get-tough bona fides.
Perhaps when the dust settles, Councilmember Catania will realize that plunging troubled kids into destitution isn’t a way to get them back in the classroom — let alone engaged in learning.