How do you get your teenager to stay in school? Grounding, privilege stripping, bribes? How about threatening to take away their food and housing? That’s what a bill that just passed the Michigan House of Representatives would do, and not just to the teen, but the whole family.
House Bill 4041, deemed the “Parental Responsibility Act,” would cut low-income families off from receiving family independence program assistance if any member of the family is considered “truant.” The goal of the bill is to get parents more actively engaged in their children’s education – by taking away their ability to pay for utilities or housing.
This isn’t a new idea either. Since 2012 the Department of Human Services has been denying food assistance to families of truant children. That is in spite of findings that hungry students do worse in the classroom, struggling with concentration and memory.
Now, in addition to cutting off their food, legislators want to make it so poor students struggling with education are also cut off from help with housing and utility payments, all in the interests of education. According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Al Pscholka of Stevensville:
“The best defense we have against poverty is a good education, and that can only happen if a child is in school… This bill is a last resort for individuals unwilling to cooperate with (the Department of Human Services). This is a long process.”
But educators and some legislators are not convinced. Representative Frank Liberati, of Allen Park, objected:
“If the family loses all of its assistance because of the truancy of a single teenager, what will happen to other children of the household?”
“Will they no longer have enough to eat? Maybe there’s no longer enough money to pay the utility bills. Or worse yet maybe a family can no longer pay rent so they become homeless. Is this how we’re supposed to break the cycle of poverty? I don’t think so.”
Godfrey-Lee Superintendent David Britten doesn’t “think this type of hammer is needed.” Instead he feels the state should be focusing on providing wrap-around services and removing barriers to education, not creating new ones.
Gilda Jacobs of the Michigan League for Public Policy raises another important point:
[P]arents can do their best but we cannot control our children.
Even if a parent walks his or her child into one door of the school, there is no guarantee that the student won’t just walk out another one.
Truancy is one of the many barriers between low-income families and an education that can help end the cycle of poverty. But the answer to truancy is not the denial of services, particularly cash assistance. If you think the state government should be supporting its poorest families, rather than punishing them, contact your senator today and tell them to vote no on House Bill 4041.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a juvenile defense attorney for Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents students in school suspension and expulsion hearings, as well as in juvenile court. If you know a student facing discipline at school, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a free consultation.