State Sen. Stacey Campfield says he’s moving forward with a controversial bill that would tie some state benefits for poor families to their children’s school performance, despite objections raised by Gov. Bill Haslam.
The Knoxville Republican lawmaker told TNReport that he plans to bring Senate Bill 132 up in the Senate floor Thursday, saying he isn’t convinced by what the Haslam administration called “philosophical” concerns about the legislation.
“I’m waiting to hear their legitimate objections,” Campfield said. “I talked to the governor about it and really he just said it sends a bad message but, you know, sometimes we have to think about the future generations instead of the immediate political ramifications. What’s been portrayed a lot of times about this legislation sure may sound bad in the media, but the reality of the bill is that it helps kids get out of poverty.”
Campfield’s measure, carried on the House side by Savannah Republican Vance Dennis, would lower the amount of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families payments by up to 30 percent if a child fails to pass to the next grade. Parents could prevent the reductions by attending two parent-teacher conferences during the school year, taking an eight-hour parenting class or enrolling their child in a tutoring program or summer school.
The bill’s sponsors argue that it will encourage parental involvement in students’ academic progress. But the governor, himself a Republican, has said that he’s not sure cutting benefits is the right way to address the issue.
“My concern has been (that) whenever we want to have a cause-and-effect, we want to make certain that there really is a direct link there in the relationship,” Haslam told reporters Monday. “I think that there are too many other reasons that could cause a child to struggle in school beyond just a parent’s lack of involvement. Parents’ involvement is a key, and we all think that. And we’re all working hard to have more parental involvement in children’s education. But to have that direct link there, when there are so many other factors, is worrisome to me.”
The proposal has also sparked much harsher criticism, especially from Democratic legislators, and even earned a bit of national television mockery on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus has dubbed the plan the “Starve the Children Bill” and Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory called it “bigotry” during a press event Tuesday.
A spokeswoman with the Tennessee Department of Human Services told the House Government Operations Committee during a discussion on the bill April 9 that about 53,000 families in the state receive TANF payments. The maximum benefit for a single mother with two children is $185 per month.
During the same meeting, Memphis Democrat Johnnie Turner compared that monthly benefit figure to the $173 Tennessee lawmakers make as a “per diem,” arguing that legislators might not fully appreciate how much of an impact the money has for the state’s poorest families.
“Why would we only penalize the poorest—$185? That’s how much we make a day,” Turner said. “Do these parents care about their children? Yes. Do they want them to get a better education than they did? Yes. But there are circumstances that they cannot overcome…They love their kids, they’re doing the best that they can, so we’re going to penalize the child, ultimately who is the victim.”
The Government Operations Committee ultimately voted 8-4 along partisan lines to give the legislation a positive recommendation. The House version is next set to be considered by the lower chamber’s Finance, Ways & Means committee.
Gov. Haslam has suggested that, should the measure pass both chambers, it might be a candidate for veto.
Amelia Morrison Hipps and Mark Todd Engler contributed to this story