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Legislative panel to explore rejecting Tennessee’s share of federal education money

From the Tennessean: Legislative leaders appointed a 10-member panel on Monday to determine whether Tennessee can reject $1.8 billion in federal f

From the Tennessean: Legislative leaders appointed a 10-member panel on Monday to determine whether Tennessee can reject $1.8 billion in federal funding for education, and recommend a strategy for how to do so before the legislature reconvenes in January.


Tennessee receives $1.8 billion in Title I, IDEA, and other federal program funding each year, which support low-income students, students with disabilities, and school lunch programs.


Tennessee would be the first state to undertake a rejection of federal education funds, if lawmakers move on the panel’s recommendations in January.


House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, repeatedly expressed interest in rejecting federal education funding during the legislative session earlier this year, citing federal mandates attached to the funding such as standardized testing like the TCAP.


Appointing a working group is a first step toward the possible move.


The Joint Working Group on Federal Education Funding appointed Monday by Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, will review what funding state and local governments in Tennessee receive from the federal government, how the funding is used, whether the state could provide the same services, and whether it would be feasible to reject the funds.


“The education of our youth is one of the essential responsibilities of our government,” McNally said. “Federal dollars and the various mandates and restrictions that come with those dollars affect the way Tennessee’s children are educated. Due to our state’s excellent financial position, this is a worthy subject of examination and study.”


Working group members are tasked with recommending a strategy for how to reject the federal funds by Jan. 9 – the day the legislature is scheduled to return to session next year.


“It would allow us to create an education system that fits the Tennessee model and allow teachers to teach without the federal government trying to tell us what to do,” Sexton said in February, adding that the state would cover the $1.8 billion in programs funded federally, if it chose to reject the funding. “The state will pick up the cost and still fund those things, but we will be free of the federal regulations.”


“This working group will help provide a clearer picture of how much autonomy Tennessee truly has in educating our students,” Sexton said in a statement Monday.


Announcement of the working group comes after the state reported a modest dip in revenue amid tax holidays last month.


Democrats roundly criticized Sexton’s proposal to reject the federal funds when he first floated the idea. House Minority Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said the move would be “a fiscally irresponsible decision that would directly jeopardize the integrity of our public school system.”


“When you cut all federal funding, and lose that money, not only do you jeopardize those Title I, IDEA, SNAP programs – you’re then putting the state in a position where you have to fill in that void,” Clemmons told reporters in February. “You’re really making Tennessee taxpayers pay twice for the same underfunded public school system in the state of Tennessee.”


Education Commissioner Lizette Gonzalez Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment.


Elizabeth Johnson, a spokesperson for Gov. Bill Lee indicated that the governor is not opposed to rejecting federal education funds.


“Gov. Lee looks forward to reviewing the legislative working group’s findings and remains committed to working with the General Assembly to ensure all Tennessee students have access to a high-quality education, while pushing back on federal overreach,” Johnson wrote in an email to The Tennessean.


House and Senate Education Chairs Debra Moody, R-Covington, and John Lundberg, R-Bristol, will co-chair the committee. Other members include:


  • Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald
  • Sen. Bill Powers, R-Clarksville
  • Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro
  • Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis
  • Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge
  • Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville
  • Rep. William Slater, R-Gallatin
  • Rep. Ronnie Glynn, D-Clarksville


In a statement Monday, Akbari emphasized federal education funding as key to schools in economically disadvantaged areas, and reducing disparities in education quality, and supporting students with “specialized services and interventions that might otherwise be unaffordable.”


“The harsh consequences of rejecting this $1.8 billion in funding cannot be overstated,” Akbari said. “Through this committee, I will advocate that Tennessee keep accepting these necessary funds. After all, our tax dollars should be used to support Tennessee students, not students in other states.”


A date and time for the working group’s meetings has not yet been announced.