The state has now appointed a panel to consider rejecting federal dollars in education in our state. Tennessee receives $1.8 billion in Title I, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), and other federal funding each year, supporting low-income students, students with disabilities, and school lunch programs. Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally identify legitimate concerns about the bureaucracy associated with federal education funding. Many believe it may take as much money to manage the program as it does to take the money.
Both suggested that the state could be more efficient in managing education without federal regulations.
There is little indication, especially in the previous 4-years, that the state can manage additional funds. Look at the Achievement School District, as a prime example, or even ESSER Fund distribution.
Tennessee public schools received billions of dollars in federal aid during COVID-19, and many of those dollars were unspent according to the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Dennis Ferrier covered this story for FOX-17 and added, “Tennessee is a reimbursement state, meaning that we must first spend local operating funds before we draw down a reimbursement from the state. This requires significant documentation and reporting, and there is a lag between when funds are encumbered, spent, or reimbursed.”
Currently, federal funds support various aspects of K-12 education in the state, such as Title I, IDEA funding, and school lunch programs. Speaker Sexton stated if the federal dollars were taken away, “The state will pick up the cost and still fund those things, but we will be free of the federal regulations.”
The state ran a surplus of more than $2 billion in the past two years. However, Finance and Administration Commissioner Jim Bryson reported revenues came in at $1.5 billion for August, $39.4 million less than estimated and $1.7 million lower than the same month a year ago.
This leads to the question that lawmakers must answer what would happen if the state declined federal funding and took on the burden of Title I, IDEA funding, and school lunch programs and state revenue were not there to support them? This is a benefit to federal funding, by providing resources to underserved communities and ensuring equal access to education.
States and school districts want to have more control over their education policies and programs but also rely on federal funding to support their educational initiatives. Striking a balance between these competing interests is challenging. Accepting federal money often comes with strings attached in the form of policy directives and regulations that may not align with their state's priorities or preferences.
We agree that there must be greater flexibility for states, local communities, and schools in determining how federal education dollars are spent. We believe in the idea of consolidating funding into block grants and allowing states or districts to demonstrate academic improvement in exchange for federal funds. Leaving our tax dollars on the table does not seem attractive. Have we surrendered too much control of education in Tennessee for federal dollars and bad policy directives?
We must start at the same place: education is a state and local responsibility. We have maintained we must give much more flexibility to states, local communities, and schools to determine how federal education dollars are spent.
The federal government should consolidate funding for all categorical programs and provide the states with a block grant. A state, school district, or charter school could enter into an agreement with the federal government demonstrating academic improvement. In exchange for federal funds, states or districts could spend the funds as they saw fit to achieve academic results.
Ultimately, the decision to accept or reject federal money for education is a matter of policy and political debate at the state and local levels. It requires careful consideration of the benefits and drawbacks, as well as a commitment to ensuring that the education system effectively serves the needs of students while maintaining state and local control. We need more voices at the table for the debate before making this monumental decision. It is essential to consider the potential drawbacks and consequences carefully.
* * *
JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee