NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The question hanging over a task force of Tennessee lawmakers as they meet for the first time: should the state reject billions in federal education funding?
State leaders have said previously they want education funding “without any strings attached.”
However, before writing any legislation, lawmakers set up a 10-person task force comprised of state senators and representatives to look into the “feasibility of the state rejecting” federal education funding and “recommend a strategy” on how to do so.
Working group chair, State Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), said his inbox is full of people weighing in on the topic and wanted to start the meeting with a clarification.
“There is nothing that tasks this group with cutting $1 of education funding, and there is no precursor to the outcome of what this committee is going to do what this task force is going to do,” he said.
The Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury was the first to make a presentation to the panel.
The comptroller’s office said about 11.14% of district revenue came from federal funds from 2018-19. The majority of the funding goes to support disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, school lunches, and educator support.
The existence of the group itself worried some of the people who attended the meeting.
Candace Ashburn has a child who relies on special education programs at public schools and brought her son to the meeting.
“We’ve made the choice to stay in public education, but it needs to be funded. Special education in particular is grossly underfunded, as is education in Tennessee,” Ashburn said. “Oftentimes, school choice is, ‘Let’s go to a charter school or public school.’ Our choice is to stay in public education. We love our public education system and believe in it.”
Ashburn said her son gets one-on-one time with educators due to this federal funding and it’s been crucial to his education.
“I want my federal tax dollars to stay here. I’m paying them, I don’t want them to go somewhere else,” she said.
When asked whether this discussion all started so Tennessee would not need to follow federal rules regarding transgender students or students who identify with the LGBTQ community, a member of the House Education Committee denied that is true.
“No, the curriculum and the standards are all done through the State Board of Education,” Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka) said. “With the textbook commission and looking at the curriculum, making sure that it aligns to our standards, a lot of those things, those social issues that you’re talking about, districts pass procedures or rules on their own, on their own districts.”
Democrats said considering rejecting these funds is dangerous and potentially disastrous.
“It’s very fiscally irresponsible. It’s policy malpractice,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville). “If you start taking the knees out of public education, the way that this GOP supermajority and (Gov.) Bill Lee have been doing methodically and strategically over the last few years, it’s a direct threat to our country and our state, or our local economies will suffer as a direct result,” he said.
The task force will continue meeting with key stakeholders like school leaders, the Tennessee Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education over the next two weeks.