NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A Republican lawmaker says the state should stop accepting the nearly $1.8 billion of federal K-12 education dollars that help provide support for low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton told The Associated Press that he has introduced a bill to explore the idea during this year’s legislative session and has begun discussions with Gov. Bill Lee and other key GOP lawmakers. “Basically, we’ll be able to educate the kids how Tennessee sees fit,” Sexton said, pointing out that rejecting the money would mean that Tennessee would no longer have “federal government interference.”
According to Sexton, Tennessee is currently in the financial position to use state tax dollars to replace federal education funds. He pointed to the $3.2 billion in new spending outlined in Gov. Lee’s recent budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year as proof that the state could easily cover the federal government’s portion.
Federal dollars make up a small slice of Tennessee’s K-12 education funding, which had an almost $8.3 billion budget as of the fiscal year 2023. Yet federal money is seen as a key tool to supporting schools in low-income areas and special education.
Sexton says he has been mulling the proposal for a while, but this week, he publicly touted the idea in front of a packed room full of lawmakers, lobbyists, and other leaders at the Tennessee Farm Bureau luncheon on Tuesday.
“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 said at the event. “And that should start, first and foremost, with the Department of Education.”
Spokespersons for both Gov. Lee and Sen. Randy McNally appeared open to entertaining Sexton’s proposal.
In Republican-dominant Tennessee, GOP lawmakers have increasingly become more skeptical and combative over what is taught inside public classrooms — particularly over race and gender issues — and the policies surrounding what services schools offer to students.
To push back against these attacks, advocates have generally leveraged various federal funds the state receives as grounds to block or challenge various school-related bans. This has resulted in state and federal education officials often being at odds with each other.