Nov 14, 2023 - News

Tennessee debates rejecting federal education funds

Illustration of an eaten apple with a skin made of a dollar bill

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tennessee lawmakers will meet again Tuesday to consider the unprecedented possibility of rejecting federal education funding.

  • The working group formed to explore the state's options started questioning experts and education officials last week and is expected to continue its slate of scheduled meetings Wednesday.

Why it matters: The federal government sends more than $1 billion to Tennessee schools every year, and much of it goes toward free meal programs and supporting low-income students and students with disabilities.

  • Lawmakers have said that if Tennessee were to reject that money, they would use state dollars to make up the difference.

Flashback: House Speaker Cameron Sexton floated the idea of rejecting federal education dollars earlier this year, saying the money came with burdensome federal regulations.

  • He and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally formed the working group to determine how or if to approach the issue during the upcoming legislative session.

Driving the news: During their meetings last week, Republican lawmakers repeatedly questioned experts about requirements attached to federal funding. Sexton previously suggested scrapping federal funds would ease regulations around the state's standardized testing, but last week the lawmakers didn't mention specific problems with any federal requirements.

  • Another recurring question was whether school districts measure food waste tied to free meal programs.

State of play: Experts and officials who spoke to the working group last week said rural and poor Tennessee counties benefit the most from the state's share of federal education funds.

  • The nonpartisan think tank The Sycamore Institute reported that Tennessee could probably absorb the federal funding loss, but it would come "at the expense of other potential investments."
  • If Tennessee rejected its federal funding, that money would likely go to other states, the institute found.

What they're saying: Leaders from local school districts who met with lawmakers last week said that education funding is already stretched too thin. Instead of using state funding to replace federal money, the local leaders encouraged state lawmakers to boost current funding levels.

Hawkins County director of schools Matt Hixon said that even with a historic influx of state money last year, there is still a gap between counties that can afford to add robust local funding for their schools and those that can't.

  • "We don't have that means and infrastructure in Hawkins County," Hixon said.

The intrigue: State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, one of two Democrats on the 10-person panel, asked the local school district leaders to describe any strings attached to federal funding that they found overly burdensome.

  • They were silent.
  • "That's an answer," she said.

Reality check: Rejecting federal funding would almost certainly spur legal challenges. (Tennessee school districts have already accused the state of underfunding education in a yearslong lawsuit.)

  • The Sycamore Institute said rejecting the funding would be an unpredictable and complicated process, and it's unclear if Tennessee would be able to opt in to federal funding again if lawmakers change their minds.
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