Cheatham County Exchange

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton talks about education funding options in visit to Wilson County

State Rep. Clark Boyd (right) of Lebanon introduces Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, who gave a one-hour presentation on Nov. 14 at the Wilson County commission chambers about the state considering rejecting federal money for education. XAVIER SMITH

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton made a stop in Wilson County on Tuesday to hold a town hall meeting with about 50 residents and community leaders. 

Sexton briefly made some remarks and then answered questions regarding the state’s consideration of rejecting nearly $2 billion in federal funding for education that he said the state could supplement moving forward. 

Sexton’s appearance in Wilson County came on the next to last day the 10-member Federal Education Funding Working Group, tasked with investigating the potential move, concluded a series of meetings in Nashville on the issue. 

Sexton has spearheaded the analysis of the state’s ties to federal funding and potential options moving forward to alter or replace the relationship. 

Tennessee receives about $1.8 billion in federal funding in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Title I, USDA child nutrition program and other programs. 

Wilson County received $19,797,772 – about 16.7 percent of its budget – in federal funding in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. Lebanon Special School District received $7,723,327, which made up about 27 percent of its budget. 

Sexton said he believes the state could fund the programs, if necessary, through more than $2 billion in recurring surplus of state funds.

Sexton said the state has already invested a large amount into education over the last decade when asked why state officials haven’t already invested the billions into education that would be used if the state discontinued accepting federal funding. 

“You’ve seen us in the classroom. You’ve seen us invest in vocational skills. You’ve seen us invest in teacher salary. You’ve seen us invest $2 billion,” said Sexton, who said requirements and stipulations attached to federal funding prompted the investigation.

“Every one of those rules that have been imposed affects us, whether we agree or not agree,” said Sexton, who said members of the Government Operations Committee often discuss the reoccurring changes from federal government. “We also know that when we try to make any changes to education, the federal government, through fiscal review, say you’re going to lose all your money if you make this change that’s in the best interest of Tennessee students.”

Sexton pointed to federal programs like Race to the Top, which he said brought Common Core to the state, the pushing of Critical Race Theory and waste from the school lunch program were some examples of issues that led to the push to analyze the federal funding. 

Sexton said he believes the Federal Education Funding Working Group would return one of three possible recommendations – leave the situation as it is; attempt to move to block funding for federal money; or reject federal money and fund the programs through the state.

The committee is expected to present its findings and recommendation prior to the start of the Tennessee General Assembly’s 2024 legislation session in January. 

“Putting that money in doesn’t mean anybody goes without those services. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to fund IDEA, we’re not going to fund school lunches or that we’re not going to fund Title I,” Sexton said. “It just means we’re going to put the money in and then we’ll have the ability to continue to provide education but have a little bit more entitlement.”

Sexton did not highlight if there would be any funding safeguards for local districts if state funding for the program shrinks at any point but said the state would be “committed” to funding the programs if the state ultimately chooses to reject the federal funds.

“Our commitment is to continue to fund it. People who have IDEA do need to continue to have those programs in school. We fully agree. We’re going to fund that,” said Sexton, who said that includes other programs that are federally funded.

The move to reject federal education funding would be unprecedented, but Sexton said Tennessee’s exploration has encouraged other states to explore similar routes, seemingly due to frustrations with the federal government. 

“If they were running it like a business, I don’t think we’d be in a $33 trillion deficit, because when it’s not your money and you don’t care about the money, you just spend and spend and spend,” he said. “They’re running up the credit card and they have no intent ever to pay it back.”

The Tennessee Department of Education broke down how $1.3 billion in federal grants are spent, recorded and details related to those grants during the fourth day of meeting for a committee examining if Tennessee will continue to receive federal funding.

The largest four federal grants amount to 10% of the state’s overall education budget, Assistant Commissioner of Federal Programs and Oversight Debbie Thompson said.

The state will receive $470 million in Every Student Succeeds Act funding for low-income students, $310.5 million in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funding, $29.5 million in Carl D. Perkins funding for technical education as well as $484 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture food program funding.

Thompson explained the funding allows for up to 20% of the grants to be used for administrative costs related to running the federal programs.

Deputy Commissioner of Operations Sam Pearcy explained many of the federal requirements related to grants are also written into state law, meaning that rejecting federal funding does not necessarily take away requirements for Tennessee schools unless state laws changed.

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, again asked about food waste related to the federal school lunch and breakfast programs. Chief Operating Officer Shannon Gordon explained many schools have implemented shared food tables for unopened food that another student could eat.