Tennessee Explores Rejecting Federal Education Funding in Push for Autonomy

Tennessee lawmakers are considering rejecting $1.8 billion in federal K-12 education funding to assert state educational autonomy.
Tennessee Explores Rejecting Federal Education Funding in Push for Autonomy
The U.S. Department of Education building is seen in Washington on July 21, 2007. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Chase Smith

In a legislative proposal that would be a first for any state, Tennessee’s House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Governor Randy McNally, both Republicans, this week appointed a legislative panel to explore forfeiting some almost $1.8 billion of federal K-12 education funding.

The move to appoint the legislative panel this week is designed to reassert Tennessee’s educational autonomy from the U.S. Department of Education, targeting funds that support low-income students, English learners, and those with disabilities.

Sexton proposed the move during the legislature’s regular session earlier this year after flouting it publicly at a Tennessee Farm Bureau luncheon.

Then, Sexton asserted that by refusing the federal money, Tennessee can “educate the kids how Tennessee sees fit.”

“The federal government was set up by the states—the states are the parents—not the federal government,” Sexton told reporters this week. “And we should do everything that we can to be whole and autonomous and independent from the federal government. But when you take federal government money, their philosophies, what they want you to do, is different than probably what the state wants to do.”

A major caveat, however, is the state’s intention to replace the federally-derived amount using its own resources, something McNally says is possible due to the state’s robust financial health.

“The education of our youth is one of the essential responsibilities of our government,” McNally said in a statement provided to The Epoch Times this week. “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.”

Legislative Panel Exploring Options

In a letter this week to the clerks of both chambers of the legislature, the two leaders laid out the work the panel is expected to do.

The group will be authorized and directed to “study, evaluate, analyze, and undertake a comprehensive review of federal education funding.”

A 2019 image of Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton. (Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)
A 2019 image of Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton. (Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

This will include identifying the amount of federal funding the state and political subdivisions of the state receive for educational programs and purposes and the laws associated with accepting such funds; and examining how the state and the political subdivisions of the state use or intend to use the federal education funding and whether there are conditions or requirements to accepting such funds.

They will be required to issue a report to legislators by January 9, 2024, the first day of the 2024 legislative session. The report will include “strategies” on how the state can “reject certain federal funding or how to eliminate unwanted restrictions placed on the state due to the receipt of such federal funds.”

The panel consists of members of both parties, although Republicans make up the majority, as the party holds a supermajority in both chambers of Tennessee’s legislature.

What’s Next

Tennessee’s predominantly Republican political landscape, with 27 Republicans in the Senate and 73 in the General Assembly, suggests favorable winds for this legislation.

Such legislation, if passed, could signify a larger trend where red states resist perceived unconstitutional federal impositions in various domains. Tennessee is undertaking the study alongside states like Oklahoma and South Carolina which are exploring similar avenues.

House Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D, voiced concerns about refusing the federal funds, arguing that Tennessee’s students should benefit from their taxpayer dollars.

“The harsh consequences of rejecting this $1.8 billion in funding cannot be overstated,” Akbari said in a statement Monday. “Through this committee, I will advocate that Tennessee keep accepting these necessary funds. After all, our tax dollars should be used to support Tennessee students, not students in other states.”

Similarly, Democratic U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen pointed out the potential adverse effects on students with disabilities and families relying on federally subsidized school meals.

Republican Governor Bill Lee voiced his interest in hearing the findings of the panel, saying the state has to do what is best to spend taxpayer dollars “in the long term.”

“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 told reporters on Wednesday, according to The Tennessean.

Funding The Proposal

A significant question raised in this debate is the double financial burden on Tennesseans. Democrats argue that Tennesseans would essentially pay twice for public education—once at the state level and then at the federal level, without reaping the benefits of the latter.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee takes part in a discussion on state-level criminal justice reform in Nashville, Tenn., on April 17, 2019. (Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee takes part in a discussion on state-level criminal justice reform in Nashville, Tenn., on April 17, 2019. (Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)

However, Sexton dismissed this view, stressing the importance of returning to a foundational understanding of the relationship between federal and state governments. He contends that the federal government should relax its restrictions, allowing states to effectively utilize their own taxpayer’s money.

“Can we afford it? I think we can, based off our budget numbers and how we’ve been performing,” Sexton said Wednesday, according to The Tennessean. “And is it important enough for us to be independent? You have everybody running for president on the Republican side saying we need to do away with the [U.S.] Department of Education.”

The U.S. Department of Education has deemed the move “political posturing” that could impede access to tutoring, afterschool and summer programs, school counselors and mental health professionals.

“Our students need more—not less—to support their academic recovery and address the youth mental health crisis,” a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson told The Tennessean.

“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, according to the outlet.

Despite these criticisms, Sexton remains resolute in his philosophy of state autonomy. Emphasizing the states’ role in establishing the federal government, he expressed a desire for states to regain their independence and autonomy, particularly in education.

While it remains to be seen how this proposal will evolve and what it means for Tennessee’s education system, it undoubtedly signals a desire for greater state autonomy and a potential recalibration of state-federal relationships.