Top Tennessee lawmakers start push to reject billions of dollars in federal education funds

The move would cost the Volunteer State $1.9 billion, but state would reject any federal mandates

By: - September 26, 2023 10:07 am

Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton announced Monday the formation of a legislative committee to consider rejecting billions of dollars in federal funds for public schools. (Photo by John Partipilo of the Tennessee Lookout)

Tennessee could be on the verge of rejecting nearly $1.9 billion in federal education funding with House and Senate leaders creating a group to study the potential impact.

The idea is drawing opposition already, though, from key Democrats, including Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, who said the money is “essential to ensure educational equity and opportunity for all American students.” Akbari, who will serve on the panel, said she will advocate for keeping the federal funds.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally announced Monday the appointment of a group of lawmakers to pore over restrictions, mandates and regulations tied to taking money from the U.S. Department of Education.

Sexton, a Crossville Republican, broached the idea early this year but now appears ready to try to make it a reality.

“Any time the federal government sends money, there are always strings attached to those dollars, and there is always a possibility that it opens the state up to other regulations or restrictions,” Sexton said in a statement. “This working group will help provide a clearer picture of how much autonomy Tennessee truly has in educating our students.”

McNally, likewise, 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.”

Neither one of them would say what types of federal requirements they oppose as part of getting the money. McNally, however, said the idea of the working group’s job is to identify restrictions and mandates to determine if they are “harmful” and whether the state can “fully fund” education without the federal money.

The state received nearly $2.5 billion from the federal government in fiscal 2021-22 when the nation was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and more than $1.9 billion last fiscal year. The fiscal 2023-24 budget contains $1.89 billion from the feds, most of which goes toward nutrition, Title I programs for low-income children and special needs students as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

More than a third of Tennessee’s $56.2 billion budget comes from the federal government. Yet Republicans have been trying to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education for years.

The Sycamore Institute, a nonprofit organization, estimated the per-pupil funding at $1,230 four years ago, before the pandemic, with each school district receiving an average of $7.9 million, about $192.5 million for Shelby County Schools to a low of $311,000 for the Richard City Special School District in Marion County, which is made up of one school.

Federal funds made an average of 11% of every school district’s revenue, ranging from 20% for Humboldt City School District in Gibson County to 2.7% for Williamson County Schools, according to the Sycamore Institute report.

Akbari pointed out the funds serve as a “vital pillar” for offering students a chance at a quality education regardless of their background. She also noted federal money helps states with fewer resources, so they can reduce educational disparities for special needs students, English language learners and poor students.

“The harsh consequences of rejecting this $1.89 billion of funding cannot be overstated,” Akbari said.

Rep. Sam McKenzie, a Knoxville Democrat who serves on the House Education Administration Committee, criticized the plan, saying, “Nothing’s free in life. But we live in a connected country and world, so to isolate Tennessee is really shortsighted.”

McKenzie pointed out Tennessee graduates move on to out-of-state universities and medical schools, “so there has to be some commonality. … That’s what the strings are, to try to make sure there are some standards that are set.”

Furthermore, McKenzie said he is concerned about the Republican supermajority “dictating” K-12 education and added this plan could be “one of the worst ideas ever conceived.”

The Tennessee Department of Education could not provide an immediate response to questions and referred the matter to Gov. Bill Lee’s office, which said he looks forward to reviewing the committee’s findings while making sure students have access to a strong education “while pushing back on federal overreach.”

This story was originally produced by the Tennessee Lookout which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.