Tennessee speaker pushes back at critics questioning state exploring rejecting federal education funds

Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, speaks to reporters Thursday following a State Building Commission meeting about GOP lawmakers exploring rejecting federal education dollars and replacing them with state funds to create more flexibility.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, is pushing back against criticism of lawmakers exploring the possibility of rejecting federal financial support of public schools and replacing the money with state funds. The change would give the state greater autonomy over education dollars because of requirements on how the estimated $1.1 billion to $2 billion in annual federal support is spent, according to Rep. Sexton.

"No. 1 thing that's still out there is the total misinformation that the left wants to keep saying is we're cutting federal dollars," Sexton told two reporters Thursday following a meeting of the State Building Commission. "And that's not accurate. There has not been anybody, and I know that I haven't, that has said that we're cutting anything. All we're saying is instead of federal money, can we pay for it with state money?"

That would allow the state to have more flexibility, Sexton said.

"We're not cutting anything, we're not reducing services, we're not saying kids don't get the help that they need for special needs," the speaker said. "We're not saying that we're not going to fund Title I, we're not saying we're not funding school lunches."

(READ MORE: Schools ask if lawmakers can afford to replace federal education dollars, why not invest instead)

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, of Nashville, and other Democrats have criticized the Republican-led ad hoc committee put together by Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker from Oak Ridge.

"In a sane world, the Tennessee legislature would have a working group about moving an extra — $1.5 billion into K-12 education — but instead of doing that to replace rejected federal funds, we could actually increase funding for schools and student & students," Yarbro stated in a social media post earlier in the week.

On the second day of the panel's three days of hearings, four superintendents from across the state said they would instead favor keeping the federal dollars and plow surplus revenues into other K-12 areas benefiting students, teachers and school buildings.

"The needs are so great," said Toni Williams, interim superintendent of Memphis-Shelby County Schools, who was among those testifying.

Memphis has a number of school buildings still in use that were built more than 100 years ago, some with rat infestations, Williams said.

Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson requested lawmakers look at putting the additional state money toward education instead of replacing the existing funding.

"There may be avenues other than looking at just replacing federal funds as a whole," Hixson said at the hearing. "Maybe look at the rural or poor districts with the biggest needs that can get additional money from the state if we're talking about additional revenues you're willing to offer."

(READ MORE: Tennessee lawmakers discuss forgoing federal K-12 education dollars)

Republican lawmakers fixated at times on food waste. Sexton has questioned why hot school-prepared meals can't be provided to poorer students to take home.

Sexton said U.S. Department of Education officials turned down a request from the panel to testify.

"I learned that the federal Department of Education doesn't want to come and answer questions," Sexton said. "They don't want anybody to know what they're doing. So I find that amusing."

But in a statement to The Associated Press shared on social media, a department spokesperson said, "The U.S. Department of Education was not invited by the working group co-chairs to testify. However, the department has offered to provide technical assistance to members of the legislature."

The speaker later added he thinks the working group is "probably going to have to go on longer."

"I think the more you talk about, you know the school lunch program is under (the U.S. Department of Agriculture). The Department of Education says we can pull that funding from you," Sexton said, "Well, USDA, we need to ask them, can they actually pull the funding or is that your decision. Who's the one?

"So having an understanding about what is out there, what strings are attached or what not is attached, what tests are coming through," the speaker continued. "I think you've just seen a top level thing, to come through and see what it is."

Senate Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said earlier this week that while he believes it's a "healthy exercise" to look at federal funding, it would be "challenging at best" to reject the federal funds.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.