Nov 16, 2023 - News

Tennessee continues discussions on rejecting federal education funding

Illustration of three dollar symbols on a piece of lined paper with a pencil.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A group of Tennessee lawmakers considering the possibility of turning down more than $1 billion in federal education funding wrapped two weeks of hearings on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The 10-member panel's findings will significantly impact the 2024 legislative session and could have broad budget implications for years.

State of play: Federal dollars make up about a tenth of the state's education funding.

  • Much of that money goes to support low-income students and students with disabilities.
  • If Tennessee rejects the money, lawmakers said they'd use state dollars to fill the gap.

Catch up quick: Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton first suggested walking away from the funding because he said it comes with burdensome requirements, like standardized testing mandates. He and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally formed the panel of eight Republicans and two Democrats to delve into the matter.

  • Last week, local school district leaders told lawmakers they needed more funding, not less. They were silent when asked to identify federal requirements that were too burdensome.

Zoom in: This round of hearings concluded with remarks from two out-of-state conservative groups encouraging the lawmakers to reject the money.

  • Steve Johnson, a fellow with the Virginia-based State Policy Network's Center for Practical Federalism, told lawmakers that federally funded programs require a large amount of paperwork that blunts progress.
  • "If you turn down these federal funds, it would allow you to innovate in a way nobody has ever done," Johnson said, per the Tennessean.

Yes, but: Chalkbeat Tennessee noted that no parents or local advocacy groups were allowed to speak during the hearings.

  • State officials who spoke this week emphasized that rejecting federal funding and replacing it with state money would be a complicated and unpredictable process, especially since many federal requirements are written into state law.

What's next: The lawmakers could hold more hearings and are expected to submit a report on their findings in time for the next legislative session.


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