Tenn. hearings on federal school funding leave out parents and local advocacy groups

A group of people holding signs sit in rows of white chairs.
Maryam Abolfazli (second from left) joins other Tennessee citizens holding up signs during a legislative hearing on Nov. 6, 2023, to discuss the feasibility of her state rejecting federal education funding. Abolfazli founded Rise & Shine, a new parental advocacy group, which sought unsuccessfully to testify at the hearings. (Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat)

A legislative panel exploring whether Tennessee should reject federal funding for its K-12 students isn’t allowing public testimony from Tennesseans about how federally funded programs are run or how they affect their children.

And it’s not hearing from Tennessee-based advocacy groups either.

However, two conservative advocacy groups from outside the state are set to weigh in on the discussion Wednesday as the panel wraps up five days of hearings.

Steve Johnson, a former member of the Michigan House of Representatives, is scheduled to speak to the GOP-led committee on behalf of the Center for Practical Federalism, part of an association of state-level free-market think tanks. The group’s website says it seeks to educate people on the benefits of federalism, which it describes as a system of government where “some authority belongs to the national government, and much more resides with states, communities and the American people.”

Also on the agenda is Sal Nuzzo, senior vice president of the James Madison Institute, a Florida-based think tank that lists “limited government” among its guiding principles. His biography says he was appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to serve on that state’s government efficiency task force. He also has worked with longtime antitax activist Grover Norquist, the bio says.

The testimony will mark a departure from proceedings that have been mostly fact-finding presentations during the previous four days of hearings with established nonpartisan researchers, school district leaders, and state officials.

The panel, created by the speakers of the House and Senate in September, is to report back to Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature by Jan. 9 on its findings and recommend strategies for rejecting potentially millions of U.S. education dollars in order to avoid federal regulations that cover everything from mandated student testing to civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ students.

If Tennessee opts to forgo any federal funding for its students, it would be the first state to do so. Federal dollars typically make up about a tenth of state education budgets and provide additional support for students who are from low-income families, have disabilities, and are learning the English language. The money also provides targeted support for certain needs ranging from rural education to technology and charter schools.

Estimates of the impact of federal education funding in Tennessee have varied from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion since House Speaker Cameron Sexton first floated the idea in February. On Tuesday, officials with the state education department attributed the variance to additional federal education relief in recent years due to the pandemic.

For the current fiscal year, they said, Tennessee is projected to receive about $1.3 billion from the federal government, or about a tenth of the total spending on the state’s K-12 students. The rest of the money comes from the state and local governments.

State officials also reported that all 148 Tennessee school districts receive one or more federal grants, affecting a wide swath of the state’s nearly 1 million public school students. Of those, nearly 152,000 students are considered economically disadvantaged; about 129,000 receive special education services; and more than 66,000 are learning the English language.

Sexton and other GOP leaders have said Tennessee would continue services currently funded by the federal government and would fill the gap with its own funding if it decides to go that route.

Advocates for people with disabilities weren’t invited

Sen. Jon Lundberg and Rep. Debra Moody, who chair education committees in their respective legislative chambers, co-chair the special legislative panel and set the agenda for meetings that began on Nov. 6.

Two people with white hair and dark suit jackets sit in a courtroom with an American flag in the background.
Rep. Debra Moody and Sen. Jon Lundberg, both Republicans, co-chair the joint legislative panel exploring whether Tennessee can replace the money it receives from the U.S. government with state funds so it won’t have to comply with mandates tied to the federal funding. (Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat)

Last week, Lundberg told Chalkbeat that his committee has not allowed testimony from parents or education advocacy groups in Tennessee because the focus of the hearings is on efficiency and federal requirements for accepting federal dollars, not whether the state will continue to provide those services.

“Our charge is not to look at eliminating programs, or adding programs,” said Lundberg, a Bristol Republican. “It’s about, if we say we don’t need the federal government to provide X program, can we as a state do it more efficiently and serve this student population more effectively?”

Among the groups left on the sidelines was the Tennessee Disability Coalition, an alliance of organizations and individuals that advocate for full and equal participation of people with disabilities in school and all other aspects of life.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, one of two Democrats serving on the special legislative committee, had asked the panel’s co-chairs to invite the coalition to give a presentation about the intricacies of the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, known as IDEA, and the services it covers for students with disabilities. However, the coalition received no invitation, said Jeff Strand, the group’s coordinator of government and external affairs.

None of the panelists who have testified thus far have spoken in depth about IDEA, its services, or impacts.

“Some panelists have even mischaracterized the tenets of IDEA that are codified in (Tennessee state law), with one even saying that IDEA is in the code in its entirety,” Strand said.

Committee leaders also declined a request from Tennessee parents to testify on behalf of Rise & Shine, a grassroots advocacy group organized after a mass shooting in March left three children, three adults, and the shooter dead at a private school in Nashville.

“It’s hard for me to see this as a neutral facts analysis that’s not political when they’re talking to outside organizations and not more Tennesseans who have a perspective and experiences with these federal programs,” said Maryam Abolfazli, a Nashville mom and the group’s founder.

“It feels like they view our voices as emotional pleas, rather than a way to get insights into how these programs and funding work for Tennessee families,” she told Chalkbeat.

School leaders and education commissioner air concerns

Moody, the House co-chair, declined to comment Tuesday when asked why testimony is needed from the two out-of-state groups, or whether it’s appropriate before a fact-finding panel.

Johnson, with the Center for Practical Federalism, did not respond to questions from Chalkbeat on Tuesday asking how and why he got on the agenda. But Nuzzo, with the James Madison Institute, said through a spokesperson that he was invited to speak by Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican serving on the committee. “He inquired whether the James Madison Institute had relevant expertise that could be helpful for the legislative panel to consider,” said the spokesperson, who said the institute provides research, legislative education, and testimony in Florida and throughout the country.

Those testifying so far have been researchers with the state comptroller’s office; the legislature’s fiscal review committee; and the Sycamore Institute, a nonpartisan research group and think tank in Tennessee.

The committee also heard from Austin Reid, the legislative director of the National Conference of State Legislatures; and from four school district superintendents who said Tennessee schools could use more funding if the state has the resources to reject federal funding and fill the gap with state revenues.

Many of those testifying warned that Tennessee will enter uncharted territory if it opts to reject federal money. And Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds, who started her job in July, echoed those concerns on Tuesday in her first testimony before state lawmakers.

“Many federal requirements are also codified in Tennessee state law, and the issue of accepting or rejecting federal education funding is a complicated one, with numerous legal implications and uncertainties,” Reynolds said.

“For these reasons, it’s hard to project exactly how decisions (to opt out of federal funding) would play out,” she added.

Possible ramifications could include budget cuts or tax increases during a future shortfall or recession; protracted court battles over federal requirements that may still exist for schools even if funding is refused; and Tennesseans having to pay federal income taxes for education support that would go to other states.

Correction: Nov. 17, 2023: A previous version of this story said Sal Nuzzo, with the James Madison Institute, did not respond Tuesday to questions from Chalkbeat asking how and why he got on the agenda. The story has been corrected to include a response from an institute spokesperson, which was emailed to Chalkbeat Tuesday night.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact Marta at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

The Latest

Despite a rough rollout, nearly the same number of Indiana high school seniors filled out the FAFSA in 2024 as 2023. But there’s still time to fill it out.

The pages break down how much money each school received per student, and allows you to compare it to the citywide average of roughly $21,112 per student.

Some worry that the legislation is not enough to address disparities in enrollment and performance.

Many high school students struggled in the aftermath of COVID. This graduating senior found a talent for wrestling, teaching, and connecting with the classmates who wanted to give up.

Schools are too often punishing and excluding special education students with behavioral issues, Tennessee Disability Coalition says

Muchos estudiantes de high school atravesaron dificultades a consecuencia del COVID. Esta estudiante de último curso descubrió su don para la lucha, enseñar y para conectarse con los compañeros de clase que querían darse por vencidos.