The Tennessee State Capitol. Credit: Eric England/Nashville Scene/Special to the Banner

The legislature kicked off a study committee Monday to examine rejecting billions in future federal funds for education, much of which is used to support lower-income school districts. 

The Joint Working Group on Federal Education Funding was created by House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally with the task of examining what Sexton called “strings attached” to those federal dollars and determining whether or not the state could do without that funding. In five sessions over the next week and a half, seven panels will present to the body exactly what these funds are and what the ramifications could be of rejecting them. A presentation on Monday by the Office of Research and Education Accountability showed just what is at stake.

“Typically what drives some of the federal funding is poverty rates in counties because a lot of federal funds are predicated on formulas, and so one of those formulas is how many low-income students, how many low-income families,” OREA Assistant Director Linda Wesson explained to the committee. 

Among Tennessee counties, Williamson receives the least federal dollars towards its local education agencies and, before COVID-19, received about 3 percent of its education funding from federal grants. Due to a significant spike in federal funding during the pandemic, 2019 numbers are the most reliable for what things could look like in the coming years. By comparison, Campbell County received about 18 percent of its education funding from federal grants in Fiscal Year 2018-2019. 

“I will note that if you read through this list, you note that federal funds tend to be higher in districts with lower incomes or more rural areas, and they tend to be a lower percentage of school district revenues in more affluent areas,” said Wesson. 

While some federal funding is based on one-time dollars, five recurring federal grant programs made up more than a billion dollars in education funding in Tennessee for 2023. Of those programs, four of the five come from the Department of Education, while one comes from the US Department of Agriculture and provides low-income students with meals. The following are the five grant programs, along with what they fund and how much money was received in 2023 according to OREA’s presentation:

Title 1Disadvantaged students$358,655,222
IDEAStudents with disabilities$292,286,148
USDA Child NutritionMeals for low-income students$284,457,608
Title IISupporting effective instruction$45,546,902
Perkins VCareer and Technical Education$29,506,984
Source: OREA

The OREA panel did not dive into any of the “what ifs” of actually rejecting this federal funding, but their presentation made it clear that this rejection would leave a large gap that would likely need to be filled by state funds. 

“I can say that some of these things are in state law. So IDEA is an example that the requirements to accept the IDEA federal grants — many of those same requirements are in state law, so even if you did not take those federal grants, those requirements for like, every student to have an IEP and be educated in the least restrictive requirement is in our state law,” said Wesson. 

On Tuesday, the committee will hear from The Sycamore Institute and LEA leaders from across the state. No actions will be taken throughout the next week and a half, but the discussions could determine what will come in the General Assembly’s upcoming session. 

“I think the discussions we’re going to have are going to be eye-opening, frankly not only for us but I think the citizens of Tennessee,” said Committee Co-Chairman Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol).

Connor Daryani is a staff reporter. He has previously freelanced for the Nashville Scene and the Nashville Post covering the state legislature and Metro.