(The Hill) – Republicans have long despised the federal government’s involvement in education, but lawmakers in Tennessee are considering an unprecedented step: rejecting all federal funding in the name of ending Washington’s “excessive overreach.”
Legislators there have formed a 10-member committee to investigate the matter, while others argue the $1.8 billion goes towards the most disadvantaged students and that rejecting the money would only hurt students struggling the most.
“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,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R) said when he appointed the Joint Working Group on Federal Education Funding.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee has embraced the move, saying it will lead to more state and local control over schools.
“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 said in an event in Nashville, The Tennessean reported.
Lee did not specify which federal regulations in particular he’d be eager to shrug off, but some Republicans in the legislature say the issue is a matter of principle.
“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,” state House Speaker Cameron Sexton said. “We should do everything that we can to be whole and autonomous and independent from the federal government.”
In 2019, 11 percent of school districts’ revenues in Tennessee came from federal dollars, with each district receiving between $314 and $2,500 per student, according to the Sycamore Institute.
Federal funds in education for states tend to target more vulnerable students, with a Department of Education spokesperson saying the money goes to “low-income families, students with disabilities, rural students, students experiencing homeless, students in foster care, Alaska Native and American Indian students, among others.”
Among these programs are Title I ESEA, which works with low-income students, and IDEA, which helps students with disabilities.
“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 really talking about,” said Zahava Stadler, project director of the Education Funding Equity Initiative for New America. Out of the top five federal funding streams for schools, Stadler notes only two of them come from the Department of Education.
“The second biggest funding stream for K-12 public schools from the federal government is school lunch money, money to provide students with school lunches, and that money doesn’t come from the Department of Education. It comes from the Department of Agriculture,” she said.
The other two sources include Medicaid, which is used largely for students with disabilities, and the E-Rate program, supported by the Federal Communications Commission, which provides internet connectivity for libraries and schools.
The federal education funds do not only go to these programs, points out Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman senior research fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation, who says a “non-trivial portion goes to state departments of education” to pay federal employees to do administrative work.
While Butcher does not dispute some reporting requirements to ensure transparency with funds are necessary, he says the programs are made to have a significant portion of the money go towards federal employees and compliance.
“I think what states need to keep doing, they need to have the freedom to make decisions at their state departments of education that are effectual decisions for their schools. Instead, I think there’s a lot of worrying about how they comply with federal mandates,” he said.
And while Tennessee lawmakers have said they could cover the $1.8 billion loss in funds if they cut the federal government out of their education, other legal issues could potentially arise.
Stadler points out that federal funding for vulnerable students also comes with legal protections for them, saying, “students with disabilities in the state would be left with out a lot of legal protections.” Nixing the funds, she said, could leave officials “stuck in lots of lawsuits about what rights are still protected.”
There is no indication of when the Tennessee committee will announce its recommendation, and lawmakers say they are keeping an open mind on the issue.
But the federal government is sounding the alarm.
“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,” a Department of Education spokesperson said.
“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 spokesperson added.
Still, critics say the fact that Tennessee is even considering the move should be a wakeup call for the federal government.
“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 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 as being spent on the administrative burden,” said Michael Brickman, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.