RUTHERFORD COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — Parents of students with disabilities worry that despite the Tennessee House Speaker’s statements, the programs and protections that come with federal education money will go away under his proposal to stop accepting those funds.
Tennessee’s House Speaker is mulling rejecting nearly $2 billion in U.S. education funding so the state is no longer obligated to follow federal rules.
Although, he has repeated that state funds will be used to replace the $1.8 billion that would’ve been in place and services and funding levels to local education associations will remain in place.
“The federal government tells you things you have to do if you take their money,” said Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville). “We are just saying education is important enough to us to say we have the capability, we have the funding mechanism to do it.”
Among other things, the federal dollars help low-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners.
“Most of us learn math with a pencil and an eraser, and [my son] didn’t do it that way,” said mother of four Mary Kate Brown. “And it’s this funding that allowed him and a large family like ours to have these tools in the classroom.”
Brown’s eldest son, Josiah, has cerebral palsy and uses a walker to get around.
Brown says as a junior in high school in Rutherford County, her son is able to have a great education with students both without and with individualized educational plans; however, one of his daily challenges is getting up the stairs to some of his classes without an elevator.
“He finds someone to carry his walker up the stairs and then he walks up the stairs himself. This happens several times a day,” Brown said. “It’s a fall risk for both a student and teacher who are carrying his walker.”
She says while fighting for an elevator in the school for months, she was constantly told installing one was a challenge because of a lack of funds.
“I’m being told over and over again there is no money for this,” she said.
So when she heard of Sexton’s proposal to stop accepting $1.8 billion in federal funding, she was hurt.
“It’s offensive. I was offended,” she said. “It’s bizarre to hear people at that level of government disrespect the disability community in that way. And, I also think it’s a disrespect to educators who are begging parents to bring in glue sticks so they don’t have to buy that with their own pocket money.”
In an interview with NewsNation, Sexton said the state can be more effective without the federal influence and rules that come with accepting this money. He also added this proposal allows teachers to teach students without catering their lesson plans to national standardized tests.
“This would allow us to create an education system that fits the Tennessee model,” Sexton said.
However, it is following that “Tennessee model” that concerns Brown. She says Tennessee doesn’t have a good track record of supporting students with disabilities and national rules give them protection.
“Removing those federal strings removes the requirement to not discriminate against kids like mine and also against kids in low-income families and kids who speak another language,” she said. “We need support from our community, so news like this is disheartening in a dozen ways, a thousand ways.”
If the Speaker were to add the $1.8 billion to education he says the state can afford too while also continuing to accept federal funds, Tennessee could give each teacher a $27,000 raise.