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Bill: Absences jeopardize welfare payments

June 10, 2013

PROVIDENCE – If a child misses 20 percent or more of a school year due to unexcused absences, his or her family could lose its cash and medical assistance under the Rhode Island Works welfare program, if a bill sponsored by Woonsocket Rep. Stephen Casey becomes law.
The bill would require a parent applying for welfare benefits to sign an affidavit stating that his or her child is enrolled in and attending school and has an attendance rate of not less than 80 percent for the current school year, not including illness, or injury-related absences.
Students are required to attend school for 180 days, so would have to miss 36 days or more in a school year without being sick or hurt to trigger the disqualification.
The legislation, which Casey said he introduced at the request of a Woonsocket constituent, will get a hearing before the House Finance Committee this afternoon.
“When I first saw it, I didn’t know where it would go,” Casey admitted, “I didn’t know how people would feel about it or if people would feel it might be an attack or detrimental to people who are on welfare.”
But as he spoke to people about it, including teachers and other legislators, “they seemed to be in support of it.
“I think that something needs to be done,” Casey told The Call. “I might be a good idea because the state is funding education for the children and we are holding teachers accountable by a testing system. If the kids aren’t in school, they’re not going to do well on their tests.
“I’ve always felt a lot of education comes down to the parents and the home life,” the freshman Democrat explained. “If a child is told that they need to do their homework and need to be prepared for school, and if they are properly motivated by being told that if you do well in school you can do well in life, that you can go to college if you do these things – these are very important factors in early childhood education.”
Casey said the proposal shifts more of the responsibility for education on the parents.
“School is not meant to be a babysitting system, not in my mind, anyway,” he said. “It’s not something where you send the kids to school and that’s it. You need to follow up with your children, see how they are doing in school, make sure they are doing their homework, make them explain to you what they are learning in class, because that’s how they learn. If they are taught they are expected to do well in school, it will stay with them. If the education is funded, but we can’t get the kids to school, we’re spending money for naught.”
Students who miss 10 percent or more school days are considered “chronically absent.” Casey said that 10 percent mark might even be a better trigger for cutting off welfare benefits. He said that was tried in Michigan and as a result “there is a vast improvement in attendance” in Detroit schools.
Hillary Davis of the RI ACLU said Monday that her agency has concerns about the bill.
“It places children in the really inappropriate position of being responsible for whether their family can eat, or receive any kind of assistance,” she said.
“What it really does is take the emphasis away from what Rhode Island Works should be doing, which is helping parents get back on their feet, getting them job training, getting them assistance so the family can move on,” Davis said, “and instead places parents in the position of having to monitor their kids’ behavior 24/7 in order to feed their families and that raises serious concerns.”
Asked if parents aren’t supposed to be constantly monitoring their children’s behavior, Davis said, “a lot of parents can sympathize with the reality that they can’t always completely and totally dictate what their child is going to do and it shouldn’t be on the child’s shoulders as to whether or not the family can survive.”
Also, she said, “It doesn’t take into account the exacerbating circumstances that can take place in a school year,” giving the example of a child who believes he or she needs to stay home with a sick parent.
The way the bill is worded, Davis said, the family has to certify that the child has been in school 80 percent of the time all along, so if the family doesn’t apply until May and a child hasn’t been in school, they can be denied” benefits.
She added that federal law may prohibit the release of a student’s records for such purposes.

Follow Jim Baron on Twitter @Jim_Baron

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