March 29, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The U.S. Department of Education is criticizing a proposal floated by a top Tennessee Republican lawmaker to cut off federal K-12 funds, describing the proposal as “political posturing. ”

“Our students need more — not less — to support their academic recovery and address the youth mental health crisis,” a department spokesperson told The Associated Press. “This political posturing will impede the basic education of young people throughout the entire K-12 school system and limit opportunities — particularly for students most in need — to access tutoring and academic support, afterschool and summer programs, school counselors, mental health professionals, and other assistance.”

The agency added that anyone in favor of such a plan “should have to answer to their local educators and parents in their community about the detrimental impact it would have on their community’s education system and their students’ futures.”

Earlier this week, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton confirmed that he has introduced legislation that would allow Tennessee to reject the nearly $1.8 billion of federal K-12 education funds that help provide support for low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities. Sexton said Tennessee is currently in the financial position to use state tax dollars to replace federal education funds and doing so would free the state from burdensome requirements that come with accepting federal dollars.

Sexton said the Department of Education’s response encapsulated “everything wrong with federal bureaucrats.”

“The Washington education regime is afraid of freedom, hates states’ rights, and knows that us rejecting federal money for overbearing policies like common core will ultimately lead to a total demise of their bureaucratic big brother approach,” he said in an email.

Federal dollars make up about 20% of Tennessee’s K-12 education funding, which had an almost $8.3 billion budget as of fiscal year 2023. The federal money is seen as a key tool to supporting schools in low-income areas and special education.

To date, no state has successfully rejected federal education funds, but many Republican politicians and candidates at the federal level have made a habit of calling for the outright elimination of the U.S. Department of Education.

Yet in Tennessee, Sexton’s effort has sparked alarm among education advocates who argue the state already isn’t spending enough on public education.

It’s unclear whether Tennessee would have fewer conflicts with the federal government if the state chose to forgo the education funding. While the U.S. Constitution says public education is a state responsibility, states are still required to follow federal laws.

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