Disability Advocacy Day is in

2.24.23 TDC Weekly Public Policy Update

The Tennessee State Capitol building lit up at night and behind a set of ascending stairs

With great speed and ferocity, the General Assembly carries on! As do we! I get the sense that this little dispatch is going to be a long one this week, so I’ll keep this short. Have you seen the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus? It tells the story of a talented musician with dreams of being famous and important finding that his true legacy is built in small parts along the way, only to be seen when looking back. It’s got an ending that will jerk a tear from the saltiest of dehydrated tortoises, and I think you should watch it. To me, it’s a great reflection of what we do here and a sustaining message for our times: for all that we put out into the world, it seems that it stays largely the same, but our impact is felt in the accumulation of the small good that we do and the people that we treat well.

TDC Priority Bills

  • ABLE Estate Recovery – this bill would prohibit the state from seeking estate recovery (clawback) of funds in an ABLE account following the death of a beneficiary, beyond what is required by federal law
    • We’ve cleared a few more hurdles on this one and we are so, so close to the finish line
      • The bill passed 30-0 on the Senate Consent Calendar on Thursday, which is pretty cool
      • The House version will get its shot on the House Consent Calendar on Monday
    • No problems here, this is a Very Good Bill (VGB), if I do say so myself (everybody says so)
    • I’ll wait on the victory lap and thank you speeches until next week, assuming all goes well
    • Next up:
  • Right to Repair pt. 1 (R2R1) – this bill would prohibit insurance companies from requiring a prior authorization for the repair of power wheelchairs and some durable medical equipment
    • This one is soooo close to getting into the race 
      • We’ve had to do a couple slight language tweaks to make sure we’re doing the right thing, but I think it’s good now
    • Not next week, but the week after
    • Next up:
      • Getting calendared
  • Corporal Punishment prohibition – this bill would put protections in place to screen students for a disability prior to eligibility for the use of corporal punishment in schools
    • It’s time for this one to get off the ground too
      • The language is good, the mechanisms good, the sponsors good, just gotta see it on that calendar
    • Not next week, but the week after
    • Next up:
      • Instituting Newton’s Laws
  • 3rd Grade Retention – the Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act of 2021 (LLRSAA21, for longs) requires that 3rd grade students score “proficient” in the state TCAP test or be retained a grade (with some exemptions and appeals options).
    • The third-grade Retention-athon ™ was held on Wednesday this week, and I had it wrong
      • I sort of thought Commissioner Schwinn would be there to party – talk about LLRSAA21 and how it works and stuff
        • And that a parade of aspiring retention-fixing legislators would come through and talk up the tenets of their bills
    • Nope – the House Education Administration committee hosted a few panels of ostensible reading and retention experts and (small) district directors to talk generally about literacy
    • They’re going to have another Retention-athon ™, perhaps more accurately described as a literacy Q&A, on March 7th in the K-12 Subcommittee
      • Rep. Haston, who chairs K-12 sub, said that he hopes to see the retention-fixing bills consolidated down to one or two by then
      • Which makes me think his administration of the Retention-athon ™ is going to be different? 
    • HB68/SB249 – the admin’s take on fixing LLRSAA21, makes its way to both respective Finance committees next week
      • This one is happening, methinks 
    • Next up:
      • Retention-athon 2.0 ™
  • Mechanical Restraint for Students with Disabilities – this bill would allow school security officers (SSO’s) to use mechanical restraints such as handcuffs or zip ties on students with disabilities
    • And with that, I have chosen a 5th priority bill
      • And boy, do I wish it wasn’t this one
        • It could have been one of the good ones, but this one just stubbornly won’t go away, and we’re gonna need the full weight of the GRASSROOTS on this one
    • Quick reminder on this one: it’s a Very Bad Bill (VBB). Just recycling what I already wrote on this, because this part hasn’t changed:
    • I have proposed some amendments to the above bill text that I think provide us with, at minimum, a decent backstop if this indeed moves forward
      • And it seems like the sponsor wants it to
      • Ideally it finds itself in the (near full) waste-bin of bad General Assembly ideas
        • Stay tuned
    • Next up:
      • Watching the calendar to see when the GRASSROOTS needs to be activated

Other Legislation

  • TANF Spenddown Extension – this bill would extend the amount of time available to the state to obligate reserve TANF funds and spend down annual federal contributions
    • Let’s back up here a bit – the state of Tennessee and the TN Department of Human Services came under fire in 2019 after a study found that the state had accumulated $750+ million in unspent TANF funds
    • So in response to the criticism, the General Assembly passed the “Tennessee Opportunity Act” to put those funds to actual use (ostensibly) benefiting Tennesseans in poverty (particularly children)
      • Part of that bill was to spend down the TANF funds so that the reserve is equal to or smaller than the annual Federal allotment (which is like $187M or so)
    • The TN Opportunity Act is not great – it increases the monthly allotment of cash assistance, but only minimally, creates extra hoops and hurdles for families to navigate and perpetuates the idea that poor families can’t be trusted to make their own financial decisions
      • It creates a lot of new programs and sends funds to non-profits to support the tenets of the act (it’s making people work)
      • Studies of the programs isn’t due until 2025, which makes it hard to fully evaluate on the program
    • And I bring this up for a couple reasons:
      • 40% of TANF recipients have some kind of disability
        • 20% care for a family member with a disability 
      • 57% of Tennesseans with disabilities live in financial hardship
        • 20% fall below the official poverty line
      • It costs 51% more income to achieve the same standard of living as somebody without a disability in Tennessee
    • All that is to say, is that the state of Tennessee feels as though it can’t spend the money fast enough, so it will need another year to abide by the promises made in the original legislation
      • People (children) eligible for TANF really need it and Tennessee makes it hard to get, and, despite the surplus, doesn’t give enough
      • Remember this kind of thing when Speaker Cameron Sexton wants to “redesign” education for kids with disabilities “The Tennessee Way” 
    • Next up:
  • Overdose Immunity Extension – this bill would make a person who is overdosing on drugs immune from criminal liability regardless of the number of times they have sought help from law enforcement for an overdose previously
    • Currently, if somebody who is overdosing seeks help, they would be protected from going to jail for asking for life-saving help, but only the one time
      • After that, say a second overdose, they would go to jail if they asked law enforcement for help not dying
    • This would have done what the above description says, prior to an amendment which leaves criminal liability to the discretion of the police or district attorney
      • So now, this protects somebody in their first overdose, but it’s up in the air for any subsequent overdose
        • Which effectively relegates this bill to nothingness – uncertainty about criminal liability is nearly as dissuasive as certain criminal liability in help-seeking behavior, especially for marginalized populations
          • And everybody loves the ambiguous application of the law
    • I say this because substance use disorder is considered a disability
    • Next up:
  • Other stuff this week:

Federal Update

  • The Anchorage School District in Alaska recently got some wrist-slapping from the Federal Justice Department over its use of restraint and seclusion in its public schools
    • The settlement between the DOJ and ASD requires the district to end its seclusion practices and reform its restraint practices
      • This ruling comes despite statewide restraint and seclusion standards passed by the AK legislature in 2014
    • Findings in the investigation show that over a 3-year span, the district used restraint or seclusion over 4,000 times
      • Let’s put that part in some context – the state of Tennessee, during the 2020-2021 school year alone, used restraint and seclusion almost 6,000 times
        • To be fair, Tennessee has over 7.5 times more public-school students than Alaska
        • But 6,000 times, with our strict restraint and seclusion policies, is too much
    • To put that in local recent context, our Tennessee General Assembly is attempting to add in the use of mechanical restraint to the suit of physical restraints for use on students with disabilities
      • That’s going in the wrong direction
    • Watch out Tennessee, the feds could look this way next…


  • Join us next week on March 2nd at 1pm CST for our Disability Day on the Hill legislative webinar!
    • We are honored to be joined by three respected, wonderful, brilliant and charmingly good-looking legislators, who just happen to each be sponsoring one of our bills!
    • This is a fantastic opportunity to begin prepping yourself for DDH!
      • But remember, the only thing you need to be an expert on to have a successful DDH is who you are and what your story is
  • Also, check out our newest DDH preparation video – “How to Schedule a Meeting with your Legislature” – shout out to Beth and Hannah for their fantastic work on this! 

Media Highlights

  • The Tennessean – The Metro Council has finalized their plan for its role in the construction of a new Titans stadium on the East Bank. Metro will spend at most $42 million on the stadium, while obtaining land now covered by the current stadium for development, as well as a $47M promise from the Titans to create a Nashville Needs Impact Fund. Between the unused or highly restrictive TANF funds to the dollars for a new football playground, can you imagine how that money could help, say, the disability community?
  • Commercial Appeal  - Dr. Kymyona Burke of ExcelinEd and former state literacy director in Mississippi takes to the opinion section to make the case for 3rd grade retention in Tennessee. The doc cites Mississippi as a case study for retention and subsequent improvement. It is of note, to me at least, that this study focuses on 6th grade ELA scores as it relates to retention-status – while the results speak for themselves, they should be viewed in the context of the available literature on retention, which find that those gains don’t last into High School
  • USA Today – last year I took some of this space to write about now-departed UTK pitcher Ben Joyce and his incredible fastball. This year, I bring you something to top that: Mississippi State switch pitcher Jurrangelo Cijntje. That’s right, switch pitcher – he pitches with both arms. That is insane. More insane than an insanely fast fastball. And he’s good. Kids these days with the ambidexterity… 

Whelp, folks, that’s all I’ve got for you. We are in the thick of it here, and that can be stressful, hurtful and, at times, overwhelming. I’d encourage you to take comfort in the fact that the Tennessee disability community is truly a community, and that community can and will wrap itself around you when you most need it. We’re here for each other and that’s why we’re such an effective community – and if you’re coming to DDH 2023, I hope you feel that present (and, of course, I hope you feel it ubiquitously, wherever you are). Stay the course, my friends, and I’ll keep you posted. Have a great weekend.