Republicans have always opposed the federal government’s involvement in education, but Tennessee lawmakers are proposing a historically radical move: rejecting all federal funding in an effort to curtail Washington’s “excessive overreach.”
While others claim that the $1.8 billion goes to the most disadvantaged children and that refusing the money would simply harm those who are already struggling the most, legislators there have organised a 10-member committee to look into the topic.
“Federal funding, along with the myriad rules and regulations that go along with it, has an impact on how Tennessee’s students are educated. The solid financial standing of our state makes this a worthwhile topic for investigation and analysis, according to Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R), who appointed the Joint Working Group on Federal Education Funding.
The initiative has the support of Republican Governor Bill Lee, who claims it will increase local and state control over education.
According to Lee, “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,” The Tennessean reported Lee as saying at an event in Nashville.
Although Lee did not indicate which specific federal regulations he would be willing to disregard, several Republicans in the Legislature claim that the subject is one of principle.
“It has to do with philosophy. Do we receive everything from the federal government? Or did the states create the federal government? State House Speaker Cameron Sexton stated that the states created the federal government. “We should take every step we can to be complete, independent, and free from the federal government.”
According to the Sycamore Institute, each Tennessee school district received between $314 and $2,500 per student in federal funding in 2019, which accounted for 11% of total school district earnings.
A Department of Education spokesperson stated that the money goes to “low-income families, students with disabilities, rural students, students experiencing homelessness, students in foster care, Alaska Native and American Indian students, among others.” Federal funds in education for states typically target more vulnerable students.
These initiatives include the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which aids kids with disabilities, and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which works with low-income students.
According to Zahava Stadler, project director of the Education assistance Equity Initiative for New America, “when they’re talking about turning down federal funding, I think they may be thinking only about Department of Education dollars, but that’s actually a fraction of what we’re talking about.” Stadler points out that just two of the top five federal funding sources for education come from the Department of Education.
“Funding for school lunches, which is provided by the federal government and does not originate from the Department of Education, is the second-largest funding source for K–12 public schools. She stated, “It’s from the Department of Agriculture.
The other two sources are the E-Rate programme, which is funded by the Federal Communications Commission and offers internet connectivity for libraries and schools, and Medicaid, which is mostly utilised for kids with disabilities.
According to Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman Senior Research Fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation, a “nontrivial portion goes to state departments of education” to pay federal employees to do administrative work. However, federal education funds do not only go to these programmes.
Butcher claims that the programmes are designed so that a substantial percentage of the funding goes towards federal workers and compliance, even though he does not question the need for specific reporting requirements to maintain fund transparency.
“I believe that states should continue to have the ability to choose actions that will benefit their schools at their state departments of education. I believe that there is much more concern about how they will adhere to federal regulations, he said.
Even though Tennessee’s lawmakers claim they could make up the $1.8 billion in lost funding if they stopped receiving funding from the federal government for education, other legal problems might potentially arise.
As Stadler notes, “Students with disabilities in the state would be left without a lot of legal protections.” Federal assistance for vulnerable pupils also comes with legal protections for them. She warned that withholding the cash may leave the government “stuck in lots of lawsuits about what rights are still protected.”
The Tennessee committee’s recommendation has not yet been announced, and lawmakers claim to be keeping an open mind about it.
The federal government, though, is raising the alarm.
“Our students need more, not less, to help them get back on track academically and deal with the problem in young people’s mental health. This political bluster will hinder young people’s access to a foundational education across the entire K–12 educational system and restrict opportunities for students who most need it to get help to access tutoring and academic support, after-school and summer programmes, school counsellors, mental health specialists, and other support, according to a Department of Education spokesperson.
“Any elected leader in any state threatening to reject federal public education funds should have to answer to their local educators and parents in their community about the detrimental impact it would have on their community’s education system and their students’ futures,” the spokesman further stated.
Critics contend that the federal government ought to pay attention because Tennessee is even considering the move.
“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,” said Michael Brickman, adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.