Credit: File photo

For the first time in five meetings, a work group created by Republican leadership to explore the rejection of federal funding for education heard a presentation in favor of the idea. 

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally created the joint study committee to investigate the “strings attached” to billions in federal funding for education and the possibility of rejecting those dollars. All of the presentations leading up to Wednesday took a slightly hostile stance towards foregoing the funding — even leading Chairman Jon Lundberg to express frustration at presenters being “defensive of why [they’ve] got to have this money” following a presentation by local education agency leaders. But a panel on Wednesday afternoon took a different tone, presenting the idea of rejecting federal dollars as an opportunity for state and individual freedom. 

“We have to consider that strings, conditions, attached to federal dollars are not static,” said Sal Nuzzo, Senior Vice President at the libertarian James Madison Institute. “They can and do change at the discretion of the federal government and the bureaucrats in charge there, regardless of whether or not they serve our students’ best interest.”

Steve Johnson, a fellow at the Center for Practical Federalism in Michigan, joined Nuzzo. Throughout about an hour, they argued that the grants received by school districts from the US Department of Education allow the federal government to pressure school districts based on the whim of those in power. Nuzzo explained that one requirement for schools that receive a certain amount of money is that some funds go towards providing a “well-rounded education.”

“What does ‘a well-rounded education’ mean?” Nuzzo posed to the committee. “Well, it means whatever the federal bureaucracy determines it means at any given time. Some of the qualifying activities they broadly publish include increased access to enrichment programs for ‘under-represented groups.’ Now how is under-represented defined? Also left to federal discretion.”

Another thing Nuzzo argued federal “bureaucrats” can change the definition of at any time is “safe and healthy students.” He said that part of that definition is the requirement to provide students with mental health services, which he said have been harmful in Florida. 

“Unfortunately, we can cite a few cases from my home state of Florida that tragically demonstrate the sorts of mental health and counseling services that schools are providing with these federal provisions,” said Nuzzo. “In one case, the parents of a 12-year-old girl filed suit in federal court, challenging federally sanctioned mental health and gender identity counseling that their daughter had received for months without the parents’ knowledge.”

Later, Nuzzo also argued that “strings attached” to federal funding can directly contradict state law, putting school districts in a challenging position. He cited one case in Florida from earlier this year, where a school district required teachers to call students by the pronoun corresponding to their sex assigned at birth, even if that student is transgender and does not identify with that pronoun. He explained that if schools did not comply with this law, the state could sue them. Conversely, if they did comply with the law, they would risk losing federal funding.

Nuzzo also brought up an example of Florida choosing to reject $2.3 billion in one-time federal funding for education during the COVID-19 pandemic over mask requirements in schools. He qualified this with the fact that every state has accepted the recurring funding streams that Tennessee is looking into rejecting. Both presenters agreed with previous presentations on the uncertainty of how this move could play out in court.

The committee listening to this presentation was thin on Wednesday as Senate members did not show up for the second half of the day. Lundberg told the Nashville Scene this decision “had nothing to do with the presentations.” Only House members of the committee were in attendance. 

No more meetings of the joint working group are scheduled, but Rep. Debra Moody indicated there could be additional meetings after Thanksgiving.

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