'Why would we not do that?' Tennessee Speaker defends proposal to reject billions in federal education funds

Speaker Cameron Sexton
Posted at 4:12 PM, Feb 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-09 20:15:47-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Inside a publication, about as thick as a phone book, you can find Tennessee's Fiscal Year 2023-2024 proposed budget. More than 30% of revenue comes from the federal government. Yet, Tennessee's Speaker of the House is now considering sending some of that money back.

"We think we can fund it ourselves," said Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. "And if we can fund it ourselves and not have federal overreach coming in, why would we not do that?"

Specifically, Sexton wants to reject about $1.8 billion the state receives from the federal government for education funding. It makes up about a fifth of what Tennessee spends on grade schools. Sexton says they're considering being the first state in the nation to reject that funding, so that there are no strings attached.

"There’s tests that the federal government passes down that force the teachers to do some tests in the classroom that they don’t think measures anything, that they don’t like doing," said Sexton.

He also promised the state would cover all existing federal programs for schools.

"All these people who are saying — oh you’re going to do with IDEA, you’re going to do away with the school lunch program, you’re going to do away with Title 1 — that’s all bogus. The state will pick up the cost and still fund those things, but we will be free from federal regulations," said Speaker Sexton.

But Democrats say Tennesseans are helping pay for those federal education dollars through income taxes.

"You’re really making Tennessee taxpayers pay twice for the same underfunded public school system in the state of Tennessee. That is completely fiscally irresponsible and jeopardizes the entire future of this state," said Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville. "We continue to just undermine the public education system — statewide."

The House Democratic Caucus Chairman also called Republican's concerns about over-testing students — ironic.

"All of us are concerned about over-testing, but you have to remember, this is the same leadership that passed a third-grade retention law, that placed the entire emphasis on a single standardized test to see if third graders could progress to the fourth grade," said Rep. Clemmons.

NewsChannel 5 asked Speaker Sexton about what rejecting the funding would mean for the Third Grade Retention Law.

"It would allow the state to come up with their own standardized testing. Things that are important. Work with the teachers, work with the teacher’s association, work with administrators," replied Speaker Sexton.

But with a phone book worth of state agencies requesting more and more funding, Democrats wonder if that money couldn't be put to better use on a different page of the budget.

"When we could be using those very same tax dollars to invest in increasing access to healthcare, to improving and actually building out a 21st century transportation system," said Rep. Clemmons.

Of course, for this proposal to become law, the Tennessee General Assembly would have to approve the bill, and it would have to be signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

Jade Byers, a spokesperson for Gov. Lee, told NewsChannel 5 in a statement, "Although we haven’t seen the details of the legislation yet, the Governor is always interested in working with the Speaker to ensure Tennessee students have the best access to a high-quality education."

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