Tennessee turns table on feds, may reject federal education money

Tennessee, once among the most dependent states on federal dollars, may reject future federal help in education to clip the “strings attached.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said he is considering legislation that would reject nearly $1.8 billion in federal education money, the AP reports.

“Basically, we’ll be able to educate the kids how Tennessee sees fit,” Sexton said, adding that the state would no longer have “federal government interference” in education matters.

A spokesman for Gov. Bill Lee confirmed the governor would consider the idea if it’s presented to him.

“Although we haven’t seen the details of the legislation yet, the governor is always interested in working with the speaker to ensure Tennessee students have the best access to a high-quality education,” Lee’s spokesperson, Jade Byers, told the AP.

The move would complement previous education reforms undertaken by the state under Lee, including the introduction of a voucher program, strengthening charter schools and changing the formula for how education is funded in the state, the Tennessean reports.

“We overhauled the way we fund public schools for the first time in 30 years, which means, instead of an old and broken system, a million Tennessee children are now funded based on their own individual needs,” Lee said in his second inaugural address last week.

The nearly $9 billion Tennessee education budget for 2023 includes base education money per student, plus incentive money to help students achieve targeted performance goals, and individualized dollars which covers those students from low-income households, have a disability, are gifted, have characteristics of dyslexia or live in rural areas.

The $1.8 billion in potentially rejected federal funding just isn’t worth the benefits that Tennessee gets from it, said Sexton.

“We as a state can lead the nation once again in telling the federal government that they can keep their money and we’ll just do things the Tennessee way,” Sexton told attendees at the Tennessee Farm Bureau luncheon, according to the AP. 

“And that should start, first and foremost, with the Department of Education,” he added.

Sexton wasn’t specific about which federal mandates on education were most concerning, but the AP report suggested “race and gender issues” as driving the legislation. It also noted the state’s previous rejection of $9 million in federal funding for abortion provider Planned Parenthood.