Tennessee Lawmakers Contemplate Rejecting Federal Education Funding

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee are exploring the unprecedented step of refusing all federal funding to curtail what they see as excessive federal intrusion into the state’s education system.

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Legislators have established a 10-member committee to investigate the matter, with proponents arguing that rejecting the $1.8 billion in federal funding would bolster state and local control over Tennessee’s schools.

Critics, however, warn that such a move could disproportionately harm the most disadvantaged students who rely on these federal funds.

Speaking on the matter, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R) stated, “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.”

Republican Gov. Bill Lee has thrown his support behind the initiative, emphasizing that it would give the state greater autonomy from the federal government’s influence.

“The federal government has had excessive overreach time and time again in the last few years, and that’s what prompts states like ours to look at any number of ways that we can more effectively make decisions for Tennesseans — out of the control of the federal government,” Lee remarked.

While Lee did not specify the specific federal regulations targeted for removal, some Republican legislators argue that this issue is a matter of principle, with State House Speaker Cameron Sexton stating, “It’s a philosophy thing. Does the federal government provide everything for us? Or was the federal government set up by the states? The federal government was set up by the states. We should do everything that we can to be whole and autonomous and independent from the federal government.”

According to the Sycamore Institute, in 2019, federal dollars accounted for 11 percent of school districts’ revenues in Tennessee, with each district receiving between $314 and $2,500 per student.

Jonathan Butcher, a senior research fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation, told The Hill that while some reporting requirements may be necessary, these programs allocate a significant portion of funds to federal employees and compliance.

He suggests that states should have more freedom to make decisions in their state education departments.

However, critics have raised concerns about potential legal issues and a lack of legal protections for vulnerable students if Tennessee rejects federal education funding. Stadler pointed out that students with disabilities could be left without important legal safeguards, potentially leading to numerous legal disputes.

Currently, the Tennessee committee has not announced its recommendation, and lawmakers claim they are keeping an open mind on the issue.

The federal government has expressed alarm, with a Department of Education spokesperson stating, “Our students need more — not less — to support their academic recovery and address the youth mental health crisis. This political posturing will impede the basic education of young people throughout the entire K-12 school system and limit opportunities — particularly for students most in need — to access tutoring and academic support, afterschool and summer programs, school counselors, mental health professionals, and other assistance.”

Critics argue that Tennessee’s contemplation of rejecting federal funding should serve as a wake-up call for the Department of Education to ensure that more funds directly benefit students and less is spent on administrative costs.

Michael Brickman, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, emphasized, “I think what’s striking here is not whether they do it or don’t — I guess they probably won’t — but it’s more the fact that we’re even having this conversation [that] shows that the Department of Education in D.C. has some work to do to ensure that more of these dollars are getting to students and less is being spent on the administrative burden.”

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