Tennessee House speaker proposes task force to look into rejecting federal education funds

Two men wearing suits walk in a crowded hallway with a chandalier in the backdrop.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton wants to create a task force to study the feasibility of Tennessee rejecting U.S. education dollars to free its schools from federal rules and regulations.

The Crossville Republican filed legislation Monday that would create an 11-member exploratory panel, chaired by Tennessee’s education commissioner, who is currently Penny Schwinn. If the bill is approved by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature, the group would begin meeting monthly by Aug. 1 and would be charged with delivering a strategic plan to lawmakers and Gov. Bill Lee by Dec. 1.

The task force also would include six legislators, two school superintendents, and two teachers — all appointed by Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally.

The proposal provides the first details of how Sexton would pursue the idea he floated last month at a Tennessee Farm Bureau reception in Nashville.

Declaring his desire to “do things the Tennessee way,” Sexton said the state should stop accepting nearly $1.8 billion in federal education dollars — most of which supports low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities — and make up the difference with the state’s own funding. He told Chalkbeat that Tennessee would still provide programs that the federal government supports, but that he believes the state could do it better.

The legislation says, “the task force shall develop a strategic action plan to guide the administration and general assembly on whether it is feasible for this state and the political subdivisions of this state to reject federal funding for educational programs or purposes.”

Sexton also is asking the panel to identify processes for rejecting federal funding, as well as for eliminating restrictions tied to receipt of U.S. education dollars.

Asked if Sexton would accept the panel’s findings if it recommended against a funding pullout, his spokesman, Doug Kufner, responded that “those questions can be answered after the task force finishes its work.”

State lawmakers could consider creation of a task force as early as this week. The legislation, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Powers of Clarksville, is scheduled to be taken up Tuesday by the House’s K-12 subcommittee and on Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee. 

No state has ever rejected federal funding for its students and schools, because states generally need the money. U.S. dollars typically make up about a tenth of a state’s budget for K-12 education.

But leaders in Republican-leaning states such as Oklahoma and South Carolina have talked about the idea. And Tennessee’s governor and the Senate speaker are open to exploring the possibility, according to their spokespeople.

Tennessee Democrats oppose the change, and many Republican lawmakers have questions about what a funding pivot would mean for Tennessee students.

The lion’s share of federal education funding goes to schools that serve disadvantaged students. And there are other programs and grants funded through the U.S. Department of Education that target certain needs ranging from rural education and English language learners to technology and charter schools. There’s also a variety of federal school grants that go through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide free meals to qualifying students.

“This funding lifts up underserved students and rural schools and ensures every kid gets warm meals during the school year,” Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, of Memphis, said in a statement. “No matter how many studies they do, there will never be a scenario where it’s a good idea to reject billions worth of federal funding for our students and teachers.”

Sexton has identified federally required tests as his main complaint about accepting federal education dollars, but he hasn’t listed others. 

Critics suspect that his bigger objections are related to current “culture war” issues about curriculum and whether transgender students should be allowed to use school bathrooms or play sports consistent with their gender identity, which may not correspond with the sex that’s listed on their birth certificates.

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

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