Tennessee Has Lost Its Mind

Want to get angry? Brace yourself:

Legislation to cut welfare benefits of parents with children performing poorly in school has cleared committees of both the House and Senate after being revised to give the parents several ways to avoid the reductions. […]

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.

Yes, you read that correctly. Tennessee is attempting to tie welfare benefits to student performance. If this measure does not immediately make you sick to your stomach, let’s take a look at why this idea is deeply flawed:

  • Let’s begin with the basics – poor grades don’t magically mean you have lower nutritional needs, nor does it mean you are somehow less deserving of having basic nutritional needs met. 
  • Worried about student performance? Taking away the support a family needs to provide for basic nutrition will HURT THAT PERFORMANCE. See: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and the other thousands of pages of literature that is readily available on the subject.
  • It is estimated that roughly 15% of students suffer from a learning disability. The proposed law exempts those students from the program, which is all fine and well, except only a fraction of students with learning disabilities are actually diagnosed and provided with individual education plans tailored to their disability. This means the law could easily penalize a student and their family for something they weren’t even aware of, and that’s not even close to fair. If anything, it would likely create an emotional toll that would exacerbate the problems. Speaking of which…
  • Can we have a moment to think about the impact on the kids? The whole bill is designed to “promote parental involvement”, but in the meantime, if there’s a kid who’s struggling in school, and their family, in turn, is struggling to put food on the table, the sheer weight of guilt is going to be counterproductive in terms of performance, not to mention the emotional health of the child.

But even in a world where these impacts weren’t on the board, the proposed law ignores the realities playing out behind the struggling students. For some of the students on welfare, their parents are already involved in their kid’s life. They’re going to parent-teacher conferences. They’re scraping together the cash for tutoring. They’re making it work. They aren’t the ones we have to worry about, though. They’re already doing what’s asked by the bill. The remainder of the parent population in question, however, probably won’t be impacted in the way that the bill’s authors hope.

Let’s think about some of the types of parents that will be affected here:

  • Working Parents – If a family is on welfare, they’re struggling to get by; that’s why they need the assistance to begin with, right? So if they’re working multiple jobs just to make ends meet, the structure of their daily routine may leave little room for the types of time-intensive solutions required with this bill. These parents are doing the best they can. Making it harder to care for their kids isn’t going to change that.
  • Multi-Child Homes – Let’s say there is a full-time caretaker in the home. If the only child they’re caring for is the child that’s struggling, the remedial efforts proposed may be entirely feasible. But what if that caretaker is looking after three, four, five or more children? How do “parenting classes” figure into their schedule at all? And how does limiting funds required for caring for said gaggle of children improve their ability to care for any of them?
  • “IDGAF” Parents – Let’s be real. Sometimes these kids are coming from pretty crappy homes. Forcing their parents to go to a parent-teacher conference probably isn’t going to change their parenting style or priorities, but it may cause them to lash out at their kids in a way that might not leave a bruise, but will definitely cause some emotional scarring. There’s an even higher possibility in this category that the parents decide to live with the cut in welfare benefits, but if you think they’re going to take on that pain themselves, you’re underestimating their poor life prioritization. If anything, for this group, the bill’s penalties are increasing the risk to the children tenfold.

In essence, the “solutions” intended to spur parental involvement are unlikely to do so. If they do spur engagement, it will likely be superficial, due to circumstance or attitude. It might be more effective to measure parental engagement on a case by case basis, but not only would that lead to wildly varied applications of the law, it also wouldn’t address the problems the bill has in terms of student impact.

Look, I get wanting to improve circumstances for students, and wanting to see more involved parents. But tying welfare benefits to student performance? It’s a lose-lose proposition. You really want to make a difference in these kids’ lives? Set up compulsory after-school tutoring programs for struggling students, provided for by the school, with safe transportation options available when it’s done. Require extracurricular activity participation by ALL students. Regularly evaluate students for learning disabilities so fewer fly under the radar.

Or how about more basic solutions? Let’s make sure that kids have the textbooks they need to study. Let’s invest in available technology to enhance the learning experience. Let’s train teachers to identify bullying and stop it so that our kids are learning in a safe environment. Let’s stop teaching to a damn test, because the ability to fill in bubbles isn’t worth anything if you can’t think for yourself.

I don’t know about you, but to me, those all sound like much better ideas than making a kid miss a meal because they’re struggling in class.



  1. All the better to close those low-performing schools, my dear, creating the education industrial complex in order to funnel all education money to the rich. The prison industrial complex has been such a smashing success that the boys are branching out. Please refer to Chicago. It’s called capitalism, dear! Be sure to watch FOX so you understand in the future, k?

  2. I read about this earlier today. I have no words to express how insane this is. I live in Indiana and I thought our legislators were crazy with our vouchers. But this is just beyond words. Thank you for expressing so much of what I was feeling.

  3. These are also the children whose teachers are given quality points based on student performance. Let’s look at two classes.

    Class one has twelve students, none on IEP’s, none living in poverty, all pass state level exams, teacher earns high quality points and bonuses. This teacher is experienced, has engaged students and involved parents.

    Class two has twenty-eight students, six on IEP, five students are ESL, three have chronic behavior problems, four are absent more than twice a week, half don’t do their homework (there is no one home to help them, both parents work multiple low-paying jobs). Their last teacher left because there was no way for her to remain a highly qualified teacher with so many student performing so poorly. She had no class aides, and shared one paraprofessional with three other classes. The current teacher has been teaching for one year and will be the third new teacher in four years (who will also be the one in five of new teacher who will quit teaching within five years.

    How on earth can these children survive school in this kind of climate?

    This isn’t about improving parental involvement. It is punitive. Punishment for being on welfare a “drain on the system” and the working poor. The Republican party has made its intentions very clear. They make assumptions about who welfare recipients are, who non-involved parents are. This type of legislation is just another misdirection for their true agenda-keeping the poor in their place and out of the Republican’s pockets.

    If they truly wanted parental involvement they’d address the real reasons parents don’t participate. I’ve experienced many of the problems in this article, both personally and as an observer. They don’t need to be a Spanish speaking community, only disadvantaged as many of Tennessee’s districts are.

  4. I find this very disturbing. I can’t imagine what this would do to a child in this situation, especially if, as you point out, the family is struggling already. I would think that if welfare is part of the picture, they already are. But beyond that, connecting two entirely unrelated issues is appalling and boggles the mind.

    1. To be fair, socioeconomic status can dictate educational opportunities, and lack of support in the home can have a negative impact on school performance. That being said, this approach to these issues is absurd and fails to do anything but cause harm. Disturbing indeed.

  5. A friend of mine also pointed out that this type of legislation is dangerous for teachers, as well, as they could be seen at fault for the students’ poor grades and therefore the family’s lack of income and the parents could retaliate in a violent manner.

      1. Well no, of course not, I wasn’t saying that was the case, at all, just that it’s a possibility, especially as it’s something that already occurs with parents of all income levels.

  6. This is so so so…. Words just fail me. There is no justification for this, no logic to it at all. Sickening. Great post.

  7. It will also put a lot of pressure on the students, plus they may see it as their fault if their family can’t afford food. This is such toxic legislation.

  8. “I didn’t have breakfast this morning or dinner last night because my brother can’t do his homework. I tried to help him but couldn’t. I’m sorry. My sister is hungry and maybe if I tried harder my brother would do better and my sister could eat. It’s all my fault.”

    TN is a republican majority state. In fact, I believe ALL THE ELECTED officials are republican after the last election. I was sent a list of many of the bills being proposed this year in TN by someone who is knowledgeable about the TN senate and house’s activities. There are three bills identical to this one. Each with a different “punishment” to the family of the struggling student but all are about benefit cuts. How do we punish the wealthier parents who are too busy (working or just playing?) to help their kids. Do we tell them they can’t grocery shop this month? (or get dental care, medical care?)

    Here’s another bill on the docket in TN, (not a direct quote) ‘If the federal government passes restrictive gun legislation, it will be a felony to enforce it in the state of TN.’


    Here’s what I wonder. With the republican focus on smaller government and “concern” for reducing government spending, why are the local legislators spending so many hard earned tax dollars on this dribble. A bill passed just this week in TN that prevents judges from removing children from a home just because the parent is disabled. That was a good thing. a lot of work went into passing this needed amendment except, it took hours and hours and hours of so many peoples time to get it passed. It took rewriting and rewriting…and lawyers and many many agencies backing it with personnel time, not to mention the money paid to each legislator who had to be present to yea/nay each time it was up for a vote and again after it was rewritten and adjusted again and again and again. Money and money and money. buckets of money. tons of money.

    It did pass the senate this week. Now on to the house where tons more money will be spent to push it through. In this case, it was important esp to the non-disabled parent. If something should happen to them, now their children can remain with their disabled spouse instead of ending up in foster care because a judge thought a blind man can’t raise a child. (bill info: http://tinyurl.com/bmcsnnw) AND…

    These other bills cost the same and more. If the federal gov. passes stricter gun regulation, doesn’t that automatically trump any local laws. Does TN need a law on the books that anyone in their state – including judges presumably – who enforce a federal law has committed a felony? More money spent for a useless piece of legislation. it’s crazy time. I can send you a copy of the many bills up for grabs in TN this year. The one you pointed out is just one of the many pages and pages and pages of craziness going on in many states.

    Incentive to find out in your own state whats been proposed and is being voted on as we speak? State legislation is in session. right now. this insanity is NOT just a TN issue. btw, I don’t live in TN. But I do live in a republican controlled state as well. scary stuff. thanks for posting this. I’ve been talking about this one for a month now. It’s so absurd, people don’t believe me. We really don’t have a clue what is going on in our own states either do we.

    We all know there is a ‘war on poverty’. We just didn’t know it was an actual war where they wanted to poor to end up dead. Or maybe we did. Remove the middle class. enlarge the poor class and then get rid of them. scary stuff. and all being done by those who care “about family values.” BUT they HATE ‘democratic socialism’. but I digress…

    I wonder if the amount of money spent to restrict food to families is actually LESS than the amount spent to pass the bill that would.

  9. So, what about this TN bill proposed this year? Another topic but still scary.

    SB234 Classroom Protection Act.
    Category: Education
    Sponsors: Sen. Stacey Campfield

    Description: Enacts the “Classroom Protection Act.” Prohibits in grade levels pre-K through eight any classroom instruction, course materials, or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction.

    —————-My rant———–

    Lets make sure there is nothing taught about egg and sperm donation, surrogate moms or parenting, birth control, in-vitro fertilization or even that a doctor can be available to help infertile couples have a child! Let’s not teach that infertility even exists! Forget about adoption. We are not going to discuss it! Don’t want the kiddos thinking about how they got here.

    Course they can’t talk about sperm donation cause that would instill the thought of masturbation into the mind of an 8th grader! yikes. 8th grade boys don’t know anything about self-pleasure and we want to keep it that way!

    Let’s protect our classrooms from anything that is not about adam and eve, an apple and the stork. BTW, don’t talk about sex, sexually transmitted diseases or condoms or unprotected sex either! Never mention AIDS/HIV! Maybe they don’t watch tv and will never know! Doesn’t matter does it? 8th graders don’t need to know anything about this topic. MY 8th grader would never have sex! My 8th grade daughter doesn’t need to know about rape right? She/he doesn’t even know what it is, right? I can just protect them from life and it won’t affect them. She/he will just get married, have babies the RIGHT WAY and live happily ever after. And of course if they are gay, I’ll just throw them out.

    Since when is pre-K and 8th grade the same psychological, emotional and educational equivalent?

    This is how government money is being spent! while Medicare coverage for our parents and the disabled is being reduced. While mental health care is all but being eliminated. School shootings? we’ll just give every student a gun. that will work…

    ok, i’ll stop now. crazy. and this is all without romney. can you imagine?

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