Schools ask if lawmakers can afford to replace federal education dollars, why not invest instead

Policy analysts with the Sycamore Institute said there is room in the state budget to absorb the loss of federal funds but wondered about the opportunity cost of doing so

By: - November 8, 2023 7:29 am

A woman holds a sign during the Tennessee General Assembly’s special committee to discuss rejecting federal education funds on Nov. 6, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson asked lawmakers to look into increasing state money put toward education instead of using potential surplus funds to replace existing federal funding. 

“There may be avenues other than looking at just replacing federal funds as a whole,” Hixson said. “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.”

Hixson’s comments came during the second day of hearings held by the Tennessee General Assembly’s special committee tasked with investigating whether the state should reject between $1.1 billion to $2 billion in money provided by the federal government because of unspecified “strings attached” to it. 

Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, started the day by emphasizing the committee wasn’t looking to eliminate the federal funds from school district budgets but replace them with state funds that would have fewer restrictions. 

“We are not talking about talking away the dollars,” Lundberg said.

Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, co-chairs the committee on studying rejecting federal education funds. Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Policy analysts from the Sycamore Institute — a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Nashville — pointed out Tennessee likely has between $1 billion to $2 billion in surplus revenue which could be used to replace the federal money. But Sycamore’s analysts emphasized to the committee doing so would mean using almost all of said surplus funds, which could be used elsewhere, like future tax cuts or new spending programs. 

Tennessee will also likely have a tighter budget this year after revenues missed projections in the past two fiscal quarters. 

Mandy Spears, deputy director of the Sycamore Institute, told committee members even if the state rejected the funds, it would still have to abide by federal civil rights and anti-discriminations laws and could be sued if it didn’t follow them. 

“This would likely be decided in the courts,” Spears added. 

Much of the federal laws attached to education money are enforced by the U.S. Department of Education, whose policies often shift with each presidential administration. 

The Tennessee Attorney General is currently part of a lawsuit against the Biden administration over the federal government’s definition of gender and sex as part of the Title IX federal civil rights law. Biden’s policy came through an executive order that rescinded a previous Trump administration order allowing states to decide that part of Title IX.

The committee also heard testimony from superintendents and other leaders of school districts, who detailed they mainly use federal education funds to help poor and disabled students by paying for school lunches and other classroom aides. 

At one point, Sen. Ramuesh Akbari, D-Memphis, asked school officials what “strings” are attached to federal funds, and none could provide an answer. Akbari said the testimonies ultimately showed how many uncertainties would be caused by rejecting the funds. 

“There are so many unknowns,” Akbari said. “It’s completely unheard of, and so the superintendents can’t answer the questions because it’s a hypothetical they’ve never even thought of.”

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, confronted by members of the public after a meeting of the committee on studying rejecting federal education funds. Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A focus on food waste

Outside of discussing the mechanics of denying the funds, Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, spent a portion of his time asking about food waste. 

The food waste discussion became part of the conversation because a significant percentage of federal funds go toward funding free or reduced lunch programs for students.

Ragan seemed concerned about measuring how much food is thrown away, asking school district officials if they precisely measured their waste.

“No, sir, we don’t have scales or devices on the trash cans if that’s what you’re asking,” Hixson said in response. “But we do observe what is being dumped or discarded off the trays, and adjustments are made the next time.” 

The committee will meet again Wednesday to hear to from U.S. Department of Education officials and representatives from the National Conference of State Legislatures. It will also hold two more meetings next Tuesday and Wednesday.



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Adam Friedman
Adam Friedman

Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 615-249-8509.