Last week, the Governor convened a special session to address growing concerns about education in Tennessee. Originally touted as resulting from the pandemic, teachers, parents, and legislators have long had concerns about Tennessee’s education system. U.S. News and World Reports ranks Tennessee 35th in education in the country.
Over the course of 4 days, legislators debated key measures, but ultimately only passed the Governor’s package of bills, which, among other things, provides funding for phonics-based learning and minimal teacher pay raises. What does education policy have to do with reproductive freedom? Quite a bit actually. In addition to being a building block of the third tenet of reproductive justice, “the right to raise and parent children in safe and healthy communities,” how Tennessee got the money to fund these new programs and the other bills left on the table have massive implications for low income families and children across the state.
The legislature will fund its new phonics-based curriculum from funds allocated to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Early last year, reports broke that the Department of Human Services had amassed over $700 million in TANF funds. Tennessee started amassing this “surplus” in 2013 and now has the largest reserve of TANF funds of any state in the country. These funds were allocated by the federal government to provide assistance to low income families with children, not to fund gaps in the state’s investment in education or address other budget shortfalls for which we are increasingly seeing TANF funds misapplied.These funds should go directly to the people for whom they were intended: low income families.
Additionally, The special session did nothing to fund desperately needed school nurses across the state. The crisis in school nursing, exacerbated by COVID-19, has disastrous implications for young people’s access to an education. While school nurses are required to vigorously promote abstinence by law, depending on local policies, they can also serve as a resource for students trying to access reproductive healthcare. According to a recent Comptroller’s report, many low income young people primarily receive healthcare through school nursing. While problems exist in school nursing, these programs should be funded so that young people have access to the healthcare they need.
Representative Bruce Griffey and Senator Mark Pody also used the special session as an opportunity to introduce yet another anti-immigrant bill. Touted as funding teacher raises through a fee on international financial transactions, this bill would only tax funds sent by someone without a Social Security number, impacting community members who send money to family members abroad. The bill did not pass and was sent to summer study.
Reproductive freedom advocates should closely monitor the use of the “surplus” TANF funds and seek opportunities to expand access to healthcare for young people. While this special session passed some concerning measures and ignored others, legislators have promised to review even more concerning education legislation in the regular session, including state interference legislation that would force school districts to hold in-person classes. The legislature will now stand in recess until February 8th, when Governor Lee will deliver his State of the State address at 5:45pm CT. Tune in next week for more coverage of these important topics!
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With weekly blog posts and analysis, we hope to cover a wide range of issues other state-based media missed and introduce our readers to emerging policy debates and current trends in reproductive freedom analysis. These blog posts will pull on the expertise and experience of our staff and community. If you have an idea and would like to pitch a post for us, please email Nina at [email protected] to discuss.