NASHVILLE — A special Tennessee legislative working group is meeting this week to explore the feasibility and implications if the state were to reject nearly $1.9 billion a year in federal K-12 dollars.
The 10-member panel of senators and representatives began Monday with co-Chair and Senate Education Chair Jon Lundberg, R-Kingsport, saying there was "nothing" in the call by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, that "tasks" senators and representatives with "cutting $1 of education funding."
"So there is no precursor to the outcome of what this task force is going to do," Lundberg told the packed committee room. "And I think that's important as we go on with our discussion."
He said he expected the information would be "eye-opening."
Co-Chair and House Education Instruction Committee Chair Debra Moody, R-Covington, said the effort is aimed at learning whether the state can provide similar services without federal aid.
Sexton has advocated for Tennessee cutting the federal dollars loose in order to free itself from strings attached to U.S. funding in areas ranging from school breakfasts and lunches to Title I dollars for economically disadvantaged students. The speaker said the state can use its own money to pay for more efficient programs as part of what Sexton has called the "Tennessee way."
But several dozen people in the audience as well as advocates weren't entirely persuaded with the exploration that, if lawmakers choose to take the route, would be a national first.
"This is jeopardizing literally hundreds of millions of dollars that need to go to our schools," one man told Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, following the hearing.
The same question was voiced by others.
"I don't understand what you're saying," said Cepicky, who is not a member of the panel but sat in to listen. "Nobody has uttered the words that we're going to cut funding. ... I've sat through this whole meeting with you. Not one person said 'cut.' From what we understand, we already have the funds necessary to do this without affecting the budget."
Earlier, lawmakers heard from officials from the state Comptroller's Office of Research and Education Accountability and the executive director of the legislature's Fiscal Review Committee.
The comptroller's presentation focused on the $1.08 billion Tennessee receives under five federal grant programs. The largest buckets of federal dollars are $358.65 million for Title I funding for disadvantaged students, another $292.28 million under the Individuals with Disabilities Act and $284.45 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Child Nutrition program.
Krista Lee Carsner, executive director of the legislature's Fiscal Review Committee, told lawmakers the federal funds "play a huge role" in the fiscal liability the state incurs.
Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, one of two Democrats on the panel, questioned the implications of foregoing the federal dollars, calling it a "slippery slope.
"If we look at education, then at what point are we going to talk about transportation? And then we're going to talk about health," Akbari said. "There's only so much money the state could fund."
Rep. Ronnie Glynn, D-Clarksville, had a question for comptroller's office officials.
"If we reject those funds, how would our kids eat?" Glynn said.
Russell Moore, director of the Comptroller's Office of Research and Education Accountability, said that would best be directed to state Department of Education officials.
The bulk of federal funds are passed through to local education agencies, Moore said. Poorer districts on average receive more federal aid as a percentage. For example, Grundy County's school system ranked No. 2 statewide in federal support with 17.73% of its total revenues coming from Washington. Affluent Williamson County Schools received just 3.13% of its funding from federal revenues.
Sexton has argued if the state does things itself, costs can be cut through doing away with federal mandates such as standardized testing like the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.
"Any time the federal government sends money, there are always strings attached to these dollars, and there's always a possibility that it opens the state up to other regulations or restrictions," Sexton said in a statement when announcing the panel in September. "This working group will help provide a clearer picture of how much autonomy Tennessee truly has in educating our students."
Maryam Abolfazli, a member of the advocacy group Rise & Shine Tennessee, attended Monday's hearing and was critical of the panel's objectives.
"We were really shocked and concerned when we heard that there's even a chance of rejecting this important funding," she said. "We understand that these laws were established in the '60s and then kept going because they established a way for our society to be more equitable and equal and to give those youth that don't come into our society with much privilege or much means a way to survive and thrive."
Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who is not on the panel, said he thought the discussions about federal education funding were interesting, especially with at least three of the four analysts expected to come before the State Funding Board later this week projecting "much less growth" than what Tennessee has experienced in the past several years.
It's not clear the estimated $2 billion in state revenue overcollections will hold up or not, Watson said.
"I think it's a healthy exercise that we go through in terms of looking at federal programs and federal dollars, particularly K-12 education and how they're utilized," he said. "We have also talked about federal government playing in K-12 space. We often say there are strings attached, but we've never defined what the strings are.
"Whether there are things in there that we would prefer not to do and the state could do on its own and sort of compartmentalize the money, maybe not refuse the whole $1.9 billion but refuse $200 million because it does X, Y and Z. We've never really dissected it down," Watson added.
It's also a financial decision as to whether the state has the resources to fund it, he said.
"I think it would certainly be challenging at best," Watson said. "And, you know, those are Tennessee taxpayer dollars. Tennesseans paying federal taxes, and federal taxes are what helps fund some of this education. So do you reject Tennessee dollars and send them off elsewhere? That's another conversation."
More than a third of Tennessee's current $56.2 billion state budget comes from the federal government.