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Experts say rejecting education funds would risk safeguards for Tennessee's most vulnerable students

(This story was updated on Oct. 26 with comments from Rep. Ronnie Glynn.)

A panel of 10 Tennessee legislators will meet in November to decide whether the state should accept or reject $1.8 billion in federal education funds.

Appointed by State House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, the panel has been tasked with determining if Tennessee can afford to reject these dollars for education in the state. The panel’s formation has also received support from Gov. Bill Lee.

According to Sexton, rejecting the funds would allow Tennessee to avoid the so-called federal strings tied to them. J.C. Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, said that consulting with more stakeholders will be essential to informing the panel’s decision-making, including superintendents, finance experts and federal representatives.

“It’s going to be a real learning curve for this. You should have brought in a lot of stakeholders … My hope is that they really are transparent in the process,” Bowman said.

Though no educators are on the panel, Sen. Jon Lundberg (R), one of the panel’s chairs, told WUOT in an email that education experts would be consulted throughout the process.

Rep. Ronnie Glynn (D), however, said in an interview that he has not heard that education experts would participate in the discussion.

Bowman said the state would struggle to make up the financial shortfall.

“What always happens, when you have a shortfall, is you end up eliminating programs. So my fear is: what are we going to cut?”

Rachel White, an assistant professor in education leadership and policy at the University of Tennessee, said that the “strings attached” Sexton and others are referring to are actually safeguards for the state’s most vulnerable students.

“Low-income districts that serve higher proportions of English learners, and districts that have higher proportions of students with disabilities get more federal funding,” she said. “And so if we reject these funds, it’s those districts that are going to be in precarious situations and feeling the instability of whether the state is going to make this up, or not.”

She agreed that compensating for lost funds would be a challenge for the state.

“Without the federal dollars, there’s really no sort of structure that would be in place for schools and districts to follow to ensure that all students are able to receive the support, and that schools have the dollars to do these things,” she said.

Glynn said Tennessee taxpayers stand to lose if the funds are rejected, since federal taxes come back to the states, in this case through the Department of Education.

“If it’s decided not to take that [money], that money has to come from someone, it has to come from the Tennessee budget,” he said. “Tennesseans are already paying into that as well. So now Tennesseeans will be paying into that, while losing some of the tax revenue that we pay into the federal system.”

White agreed that other states would benefit, instead of Tennessee, with the risk that student populations could be served differently from state to state.

“If we reject the funds, then our taxpayer dollars are just going to fund Title 1 and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in other states and not our own,” White said. “It’s important that we don’t have these wildly disparaging differences in how students are served across state lines.”

Bowman said one solution to this issue is to consider block grants, where federal funds would flow to specific state or local programs with fewer restrictions. Block grants have been used in program such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), for instance.

“[Block grants] accomplishes the bigger objectives without the risk of punishing low-income students or students with disabilities,” he said. He said rural areas, such as Loudon and Campbell counties, could lose almost 10% of their funding. “That’s a lot of jobs, and a lot of people helping kids,” he said. “Ultimately it will affect public education.”

Sen. Lundberg said there is “no pre-determination of an outcome. Education is our number one investment in Tennessee. I do not expect that to change,” he wrote.

The panel’s meetings are set between Nov. 6 and Nov. 15, and the group has until Jan. 9 to make its recommendation to the state legislature.

The group includes: Sen. John Lundberg, R-Bristol (co-chair), Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington (co-chair), Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, Sen. Bill Powers, R-Clarksville, Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, Rep. Ronnie Glynn, D-Clarksville, Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, and Rep. William Slater, R-Gallatin.

(This story was co-produced with students from the University of Tennessee's Department of Journalism and Media.)

Melanie is WUOT’s interim news director and Professor of Practice in journalism at the University of Tennessee, where she has taught reporting, editing and media entrepreneurship since 2012. Before teaching, Melanie worked for Bloomberg News for 11 years in a variety of cities and roles, from managing the multimedia desk to producing television. In between her journalism jobs, Melanie worked as director of information services at Opera America, putting her M.A. in musicology, from Montreal’s McGill University, to good use.