VOL. 9 | NO. 21 | Saturday, May 21, 2016
State Legislature Closed Door On Progress, Invited Ridicule This Session
By BRYCE W. ASHBY and MICHAEL J. LAROSA
The Tennessee General Assembly spent the last four months selecting a state book, attempting to regulate ingress/egress of bathrooms, and putting guns on college campuses. Given this lamentable priority list, we're not surprised that our House of Representatives chose not to vote on a bill that would have helped young kids realize their dreams, lift families out of poverty, and generate revenue for Tennessee.
The Tuition Equity Bill (HB675/612) would have allowed 22,000 graduates from Tennessee’s high schools, who hold deferred action immigration status, to attend college at in-state tuition rates. Last year, this same bill passed the Tennessee Senate and won a majority of votes (49 to 47) in the House, but fell one vote short of the Constitutional majority (50) required for passage. This year our representatives refused to bring the bill to a vote.
The Latino population would have been the primary beneficiary of this bill; they have the highest poverty rate (45 percent) of any demographic in Memphis but one of the lowest unemployment rates. This means that parents of potential beneficiaries of tuition equity are working hard and getting nowhere. Instead of passing a bill that would generate long-term economic benefits by increasing college access, the Speaker of the Tennessee House asked the bill’s sponsor not to bring the legislation to the floor.
Nationwide, there are 25 states that have enacted similar legislation. One study found a 7 percent reduction in high school dropout rates after enactment, and another found that undocumented youth in states with tuition equity are 65 percent more likely to attend high school compared to peers in non-tuition equity states. College graduates earn about $1 million more during their lifetime than those without a high school diploma. Thus, tuition equality translates to increased tax revenues for Tennessee.
What did The General Assembly accomplish? They authorized a nativist lawsuit against the federal government designed to prohibit refugee (read Muslim) resettlement in Tennessee. They cut funding for the University of Tennessee’s diversity office while legalizing discrimination by counselors and therapists against clients whose “goals, outcomes, or behaviors” offend the counselors’ “sincerely held principles.”
This most recent legislative session places Tennessee on the national ridicule list, just behind North Carolina and Mississippi. We don't want boycotts by forward-thinking companies and organizations that refuse to conduct business in places that actively discriminate. We want to live in a state that invests in students, divests in discrimination, and helps us all look to our better angels.
Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board member at Latino Memphis Inc. LaRosa teaches history at Rhodes College.