Lawmakers Informed That Refusing Federal Education Funds Is a Bad Idea

Federal Government


NASHVILLE—A legislative working group tasked with researching the ramifications of refusing federal education funds heard more of the same today – the first-of-its kind proposal makes no fiscal sense. The working group created and appointed by House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally continues to examine the benefits, if any, of using state funds to annually replace over $1 billion in federal education funds. Every witness this week, including Republican-appointed state officials, provided the legislators ample evidence demonstrating that this is a bad idea. 

Today, the committee’s third day of meetings, a representative from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) informed the group that nothing as sweeping as this GOP proposal has been tried in any other state.  Referencing the so-called “strings” Republicans claim to want to cut, the NCSL Senior Legislative Director for Federal Education Policy said most requirements have to do with achievement tests. He said some states have requested a waiver from certain testing requirements, and in most instances, those requests have been granted.  He also added, in response to a question from Democratic State Representative Ronnie Glynn, that the federal government gives states a great deal of flexibility to set their own educational, testing and accountability standards. 

Today’s hearing followed two days of testimony this week by the Comptroller’s office, the Fiscal Review Committee, an independent think-tank, and local school directors representing both small, rural and large, urban school districts from across the state. 

On Monday, officials with the Comptroller’s Office said Tennessee is allocated $1.9 billion dollars in educational grants from the Federal Government this year.  The bulk of that money is passed along to each county’s Local Education Agencies, with the largest percentages going to rural counties. Last year, federal dollars made up around 30 percent of Hancock (31%), Campbell (30.58%), and Benton (29.87) counties’ education budgets.  The money is primarily used for poor and disadvantaged students, children with disabilities, school nutrition programs, and career and technical education.  The group also heard from Fiscal Review how rejecting the education dollars could jeopardize other federal funds and possibly lead to federal fines. 

Yesterday morning, the group heard from the Sycamore Institute, a public policy research center, that warned about ramifications which could include budget cuts or tax increases during a revenue shortfall or recession, extended court battles over federal requirements that may still exist for state schools, even if funding is refused, and Tennesseans having to continue to pay federal income taxes which would be redirected to other states.

Yesterday afternoon, a cross-section of county school directors said they want to continued to receive the federal funds, because they desperately need money.  The superintendent of rural Hawkins County told the panel how he had to ask his county for a tax increase in order to replace the roofs on two county schools.  The superintendent of Memphis-Shelby County schools described how she has many kids going to school in buildings that are a century old and does not have to money build new schools. The group unanimously agreed that if the state has the money to replace the federal government’s annual billion-dollar plus investment…some of those dollars should be given to state schools in addition to, not instead of, the federal grants.  

Representative Glynn of Clarksville, who is one of only two Democrats appointed to the working group, said the testimony this week made it so resoundingly clear that rejecting funds is a bad idea that the working group should go ahead and call it quits and save taxpayers the money of paying for his colleagues’ per diems: “We are telling local officials and school superintendents that we can replace over one billion dollars that the federal government provides us with state money when they have school buildings crumbling around our students. They shouldn’t have to depend on raising taxes to educate our children.  Instead of replacing federal dollars, we should take the money these Republicans claim to be sitting on and invest it in our teachers, students and school infrastructure needs.”

The meetings continue next week with the State Department of Education scheduled to appear.

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