Commentary

An open letter to the members of Tennessee’s legislative committee on federal public school funding

November 10, 2023 6:00 am
Women attending the Nov. 6, 2023 hearing of a legislative committee deciding on whether to reject nearly $2 billion in federal funding for public schools. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Women attending the Nov. 6, 2023 hearing of a legislative committee deciding on whether to reject nearly $2 billion in federal funding for public schools. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dear Tennessee legislators:

Why will you not adequately fund my child’s education? 

I’m speaking for myself and  parents across the state with kids in public schools. The data could not be clearer. When it comes to the amount of money we spend on per pupil in public schools, Tennessee is near the bottom of all 50 states. Compared to other states, we were severely failing at investing in our kids. But I know y’all don’t want to talk about this. You’d rather talk about rejecting funding or finding ways to cut waste. But how can you cut off the fat when our education funding is barebones?

I’m a parent of two kids in Tennessee public schools and I have teachers in my family. I know how hard educators work to meet our childrens’ needs with the resources they’ve been given. It’s frustrating as a parent to see teachers working hard to create a rich learning environment knowing they are being underpaid while the students are underfunded. Why is it that the teachers and students are doing their part, but the Tennessee General Assembly isn’t doing its part and raising per-pupil spending to at least the national average?

This week I’ve been listening to the meetings of the Joint Working Committee that is obviously laying the groundwork for rejecting nearly $2 billion in federal funding. On Tuesday, several of you asked school superintendents to consider how the lack of federal money could provide flexibility, and it’s difficult to listen to y’all talk about hypothetical situations and how they might affect public schools.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in May 2023 that Tennessee spends about 30% less per student than the national average, ranking in the bottom 10 states, while the Education Data Initiative reported in September that Tennessee ranks 44th in the nation for per child spending.  

It’s hard to hear because it’s clear who will be impacted most — impoverished, homeless, and disabled kids. Federal funds are crucial for these vulnerable kids, particularly in a state that underfunds public education. And it’s a damn shame you would jeopardize their resources. Considering what is at stake for these kids it’s odd how fixated you are with kids wasting school lunch food.

Let’s knock off this talk of hypotheticals in your committee meeting and what might be gained by rejecting federal funding. Based on past patterns of behavior it’s apparent this committee isn’t exploring or debating this possibility. Republican legislative leaders  have already decided to go through with this if given the opportunity. Only a fool can’t see this week’s hearings are teeing up the ball for the next legislative session. I have no doubt you’d place your ideology before the basic needs of our kids in a heartbeat. Your refusal to expand TennCare and to pass gun safety legislation are prime evidence. You’d reject federal education funds tomorrow despite the fact no state has ever taken this drastic measure. Forgive me for not wanting to jump off this cliff with you.

School district leaders testify on Nov. 7 before a special joint legislative committee. (Photo: John Partipilo)
School district leaders testify on Nov. 7 before a special joint legislative committee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

It seems the underlying problem is arrogance. It’s insane this discussion is taking place before your committee with no alternative plan to replace these funds or the certainty that we can replace them. It’s one thing to discuss this issue behind closed doors while you rub elbows with your colleagues but it’s another to bring it forth before a working committee and set in motion a call to reject funding that will be fed by the irrational and rage-filled support of a political base that would love to shred the “strings” of the federal government whether it makes sense or not.

Here’s the thing:  I know the answer to my initial question. You don’t want to adequately fund our children’s  education because you don’t think they are your responsibility. And you despise the federal government for forcing you to meet their needs. Why else would you be discussing cutting so much money from public education? All of this is rooted in the Tennessee General Assembly’s fever dream involving tearing down the federal government. Never mind the kids you ignore and cast aside as long as it burns down.

Signed,

With love for our public schools.



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Billy Kilgore
Billy Kilgore

Billy Kilgore is a writer, at-home dad, and ordained pastor. He lives with his wife and two sons in Nashville. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post‘s “On Parenting” column, Narratively, Scary Mommy, and Fatherly. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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