Credit: File photo

The second day of a state legislative study committee examining rejecting billions in federal funding for education offered a sobering look at the dire financial needs of Tennessee school districts. 

Day one of the study committee served as a broad look at what is funded by the more than $1 billion recurring federal dollars in Tennessee’s education system: predominantly programs for disadvantaged students. Tuesday’s presentations by the Sycamore Institute and local education agency leaders from across the state gave a deeper look at what the rejection of those dollars could look like. But while Republicans on the committee attempted to paint the “strings attached” to federal funds as something limiting school districts, LEA leaders indicated that not only are those funds vital, but the guidelines surrounding them might also be necessary. 

“[Federal] funds represent far more than financial assistance,” said interim superintendent at Memphis-Shelby County Schools Toni Williams. “They are the lifeline that fuels the innovative teaching programs, uplifts the most vulnerable students and provides support for those battling food insecurity. These funds are not just numbers on a spreadsheet, they are hope.”

Metro Nashville Public Schools Chief of Staff Hank Clay echoed Williams and went further. He explained to the committee that even without the guidelines around how federal dollars can be spent, he would expect districts to have a “moral obligation” to spend them in the same way in order to help disadvantaged students. He said his concern is that because funding for education is already pulled so thin, the guidelines on how federal dollars are spent might be the only thing preventing the state’s most vulnerable students from being left behind. 

Among the panel, the consensus was clear that rather than be limited by the “strings attached” to those federal dollars, those strings instead make districts accountable for how dollars are being spent on economically disadvantaged students. The four panelists, who represented school districts across the state spanning a wide range of demographics from rural to urban and East Tennessee to West Tennessee, all referenced a laundry list of issues that need funding, such as infrastructure and adequate teacher pay. Matt Hixson, the director of schools in Hawkins County, talked about how two of their high schools are 50-plus years old and badly need roof replacements.

“I’m not a fan of big taxes,” said Hixson. “We’re currently nine and three quarters [percent for sales tax] in Hawkins County, which is on the high side of Tennessee, depending on where you live and what you’re doing. To go to our taxpayers — whose median income is roughly $49,000, $1,000 less than what we want to start each of our teachers out by 2026 statewide — to go to them and ask for more money to help roof and to maintain the basic infrastructure and safety required of our buildings to house our students safely each day, that just does not seem equitable.”

But despite this, the line of questioning from Republican committee members remained centered around whether or not school districts would be better off receiving state dollars instead of the federal dollars that have “strings attached.” 

“I’m a little frustrated,” said Chair Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) after the LEA leaders’ presentation. “And I say that because from the presentations that I heard… I get the feeling everybody that comes before us is defensive of why [they’ve] got to have this money. And try as I might, it’s not about taking this money away. Our charge is about what is coming from the federal government.”

The Sycamore Institute, a non-partisan think tank, made a presentation that shed light on some of the “what ifs” of rejecting this federal funding. One of the biggest takeaways was that if Tennessee were to reject the roughly $1.1 billion in recurring federal funding for education, the state would be able to fill that gap because it has “an estimated $2.2 billion in recurring revenues available before any additional revenue growth in the FY 2025 budget.” 

“Having said that, the money is there, but as with any decision, it comes with an opportunity cost,” said Mandy Spears, deputy director at the Sycamore Institute. “So replacing federal dollars with state dollars would be done at the expense of other potential investments. $1.1 billion is a lot of money.”

Additionally, Spears’ presentation pointed out that many of the “strings” attached to federal dollars align with requirements that the state of Tennessee has, which means that should the state replace the federal dollars with state dollars, many of the same regulations would remain, just enforced by a different entity. The proposed change left the LEA leaders wondering why the state would go through with the supplanting of these funds rather than just providing additional funding for education. 

“If there’s funding on the table to replace these federal dollars, we would welcome that. But we ask that it be in addition to [federal funds], because our students deserve it,” said Clay. In 2019, Metro Nashville Public Schools received close to $120 million in federal funding, making up about 10 percent of the district’s budget. 

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