7:49 PM, Apr 12, 2013
By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean
After a confrontation with an 8-year-old girl and other activists, along with mounting opposition from fellow Republicans, state Sen. Stacey Campfield dropped his effort to tie welfare benefits to grades, asking that the legislation be held for further study.
Campfield withdrew his proposal to reduce payments to families whose children are failing in school before a vote could be taken on the Senate floor Thursday. But the measure appeared to be headed toward defeat after several senators – including a few former supporters – expressed doubts.
Before Thursday’s session, activists organized a demonstration in the corridors of Legislative Plaza and the state Capitol. An 8-year-old girl confronted Campfield with a petition signed by opponents of the bill, and a choir of about 60 people, including some in clerical garb, sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” outside the Senate chamber as lawmakers filed in.
Campfield walked away from the confrontation, saying repeatedly that he didn’t think children should be used as political props. But it was a long walk, and the confrontation extended over several minutes as video cameras recorded the back-and-forth.
On the Senate floor, Campfield asked after 40 minutes of debate to have the bill sent to a committee that will study the legislation this summer. The move spared Campfield from potential defeat and some of his fellow Republicans from casting politically dicey votes.
Campfield expressed no misgivings about bringing the legislation and showed little disappointment in the outcome.
“Did I know what the final result was going to be? No, I never do,” he said. “I got a lot of good feedback from people. … I think a lot of people were really close (to supporting it) but were just looking for a little bit more.”
About the bill
Senate Bill 132 – named the Education to End Poverty Act by its supporters and dubbed the Starve the Children bill by its opponents – would have reduced Temporary Assistance to Needy Families payments to the families of children who fail a grade unless their parents take corrective action. Those include attending an eight-hour parenting class, meeting twice with teachers, enrolling a child in summer school or arranging tutoring.
Families would see their payments, which average about $185 a month, cut by about 30 percent until they demonstrated that they had completed at least one of those tasks. Campfield had said rules would be drafted to allow families already complying with the directives to keep their benefits.
Campfield and other backers of the bill said its broader purpose would be to spur parents to get involved in their children’s education. Foes said it would add to the burdens of families that are struggling already.
Campfield’s request to put the bill off ended debate on one of the most controversial pieces of legislation before the General Assembly this year.
The proposal had earned attention nationwide, with protests intensifying as it moved through the legislature. Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” asked whether Campfield is a villain from a Dickens novel.
Opponents had a spectacle planned Thursday morning. Eight-year-old Aamira Fetuga and her mother, Rasheedat, presented Campfield with a petition signed by 2,500 opponents of the bill as the Knoxville Republican left a caucus meeting to head to the Senate floor.
“How are you? Thanks for coming,” Campfield said, taking the petition. “I love it when people use children as props.”
He then set off on the three-minute walk to the Senate chamber. Rasheedat Fetuga, founder of child advocacy group Gideon’s Army, which organized the protest along with Clergy for Justice and Stand for Children, shouted after him that her daughter was not a prop and that he works for the people. Aamira enumerated her worries.
“I’m worried about the lights being cut off,” she said.
“That won’t happen as long as you have a decent parent who can show up for two conferences,” Campfield replied.
Greeting them along the way were people holding “Stacey Campfield’s Walk of Shame” signs.
‘A slight detour’
Campfield’s colleagues were more polite when the bill came up on the day’s agenda. Several commended Campfield for trying to get parents more involved in the schools, but they questioned whether his plan was the best way to go about it.
“You can say that withholding the money from the parents doesn’t harm the child, but you’re fooling yourself,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Memphis.
Six other Republican senators said they would not vote for the bill – not quite enough to defeat it but enough to throw its fate into doubt. That group included state Sens. Steve Dickerson of Nashville and Doug Overbey of Maryville, both of whom had supported the bill in committee.
Campfield retreated. By asking to have the bill studied further, he preserved the ability to bring it up again next year.
He told reporters afterward that he intends to do so.
“To me, it’s not a dead issue at all,” he said. “This may be a slight detour, but honestly I think this could hopefully make it even better.”
He shrugged off the protests.
“It is what it is,” he said. “There’s always going to be detractors.”