The month of May, which is when the Tennessee legislature normally adjourns, feels like a million years away right now, and there's no telling how much damage will be done by then. There is a bill to arm teachers. There is a bill requiring an ultrasound in order to have an abortion. (But, having learned a lesson from the fiasco in Virginia, this is an abdominal ultrasound, rather than a transvaginal ultrasound. And since no one has to say the word "vagina," it will probably pass.) There is a bill that seems to encourage teachers and school counselors to notify parents when students are engaging in sexual behavior that is "injurious" to their physical or mental health, i.e., homosexuality.
All of this at a time when polls indicate that 57% of this state's citizens would like to see the economy as the top priority of state lawmakers, and 42% believe that lawmakers spent too much time in the last legislative session addressing social, cultural and religious issues.
So maybe state Senator Stacey Campfield thinks he can score some points by targeting poor children, while claiming that he is trying to "break the cycle of poverty."
Using a three-legged stool as an example - and don't you just love a good stool analogy? - Campfield says that improving student performance depends on schools, teachers and parental involvement. All three of those legs are necessary for the stool to be functional. He claims that the legislature has already addressed the first two legs. Improving schools means vouchers and improving teachers means taking away collective bargaining rights, weakening tenure, and tying pay to test scores. None of these things will work, but they serve the two very important-to-Republicans goals of funneling taxpayer money into private hands and limiting the power of a public employee union.
But it's the bill introduced ostensibly to improve the third leg of parental involvement that is perhaps the most misguided and mean-spirited of all. Senate Bill 132 proposes to reduce by 30% the amount of the benefit that a family receives from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program if a child "fails to maintain satisfactory academic progress" in school.
Although it supposedly exempts special education students from this requirement, it seems to ignore the fact that, in any student population, there are going to be those who fail to maintain satisfactory academic progress. That is simply normal human variation. However, one wonders why wealthier families aren't being singled out for any kind of punishment here. Why is the legislature focusing only on poor families? Sadly, I think the answer is simply because they can, and because punishing welfare recipients is now seen as sound public policy.
TANF is already exactly what it says: a temporary assistance program. There is a 60-month lifetime limit on benefits and there are stringent work requirements to maintain eligibility. The TANF benefit for a single parent with two children is $185 per month. That's $2,220 per year, with a lifetime benefit of $11,100. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the amount spent on TANF is not a significant portion of the state budget. By the same token, some may say that taking away $55 of that benefit seems like a small enough punishment. But surely every penny of that meager benefit is important to the family receiving it. And why are we even proposing punishment at all? Especially when that punishment will be counterproductive to the stated goal.
In other words, you don't improve a student's performance by making him hungrier, by turning off his electricity and heat, or putting him out on the street. (Some are arguing that families receiving TANF are also on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, so this is not taking food out of childrens' mouths. And while it is true that TANF is not SNAP, the average SNAP benefit of $4.40 per person per day makes it very likely, especially if there are teenagers in the household, that TANF money is being used for food.)
Also, you don't increase the parental involvement of an already stressed poor parent in a child's education by stressing that parent out even further and making him or her scramble to make up for the hole blown in the family's budget. How is this effective? And just as importantly, how is it moral?
You know what would break the cycle of poverty, Senator Campfield? Providing some damn jobs to the residents of this state. Many of our rural counties have unemployment rates of 10-13%, making TANF and SNAP the only things that stand between these families and utter destitution.
Our new state motto:
Tennessee - Dumb Ideas R Us!
But before you get too comfortable thinking that the Tennessee legislature is pushing a peculiar brand of crazy, check out your own statehouse's website and see what's being proposed. This is where important, far-reaching stuff is happening. Although lawmakers like Stacey Campfield are probably coming up with some of these asinine bills using their own powers of awesome stupidity, thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), bills equally as punitive and useless as this are being introduced all over the country. It's kind of like influenza, but there's no vaccine for it, except an informed and engaged electorate.
Pay attention! Speak out!