Tennessee Hearings on Federal School Funding Exclude Parents and Local Advocacy Groups

A legislative committee in Tennessee is currently examining the possibility of rejecting federal funding for K-12 students in the state. However, the panel is not allowing testimony from Tennessee residents about federally-funded programs and their impact on children.

The committee is also not hearing from any advocacy groups based in Tennessee. Instead, two conservative advocacy groups from outside the state have been invited to speak at the panel’s final hearing on Wednesday.

One of the invited speakers is Steve Johnson, a former member of the Michigan House of Representatives. He will be speaking on behalf of the Center for Practical Federalism, which is part of a network of state-level free-market think tanks. The group aims to educate people about federalism and the benefits of giving more authority to states and communities.

Another speaker on the agenda is Sal Nuzzo, the senior vice president of the James Madison Institute, a Florida-based think tank. The institute lists “limited government” as one of its guiding principles. Nuzzo has experience working with longtime antitax activist Grover Norquist.

These invited speakers represent a departure from the previous hearings, which focused on presentations from nonpartisan researchers, school district leaders, and state officials.

The panel, which was created by the speakers of the House and Senate, is expected to report its findings and recommendations to Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature by Jan. 9. The panel is exploring strategies for rejecting federal education dollars in order to avoid federal regulations on student testing and LGBTQ+ student rights.

Tennessee would be the first state to forgo federal funding for its students if it decides to do so. Federal dollars typically make up about 10% of state education budgets and provide support for low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners. The funds also provide targeted support for specific needs like rural education, technology, and charter schools.

The estimated impact of federal education funding in Tennessee has ranged from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion. For the current fiscal year, the state is projected to receive about $1.3 billion from the federal government.

Tennessee education officials reported that all 148 school districts in the state receive federal grants, benefiting a wide range of students. This includes nearly 152,000 economically disadvantaged students, about 129,000 students receiving special education services, and more than 66,000 English language learners.

Disability advocates not given a chance to testify

The legislative panel has not allowed testimony from parents or education advocacy groups in Tennessee. The focus of the hearings is on efficiency and federal requirements for accepting federal funds, rather than whether the state will continue to provide those services.

Advocacy groups, including the Tennessee Disability Coalition, were not invited to give presentations on the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and the services it provides for students with disabilities. Committee leaders also declined a request from Tennessee parents to testify on behalf of Rise & Shine, a grassroots advocacy group.

Concerns raised by school leaders and education commissioner

The panel has heard from various researchers, school district superintendents, and education officials in previous hearings. The two out-of-state advocacy groups on the agenda for the final hearing have not provided a reason for their inclusion.

Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds, who started her job in July, expressed concerns about rejecting federal funding during her testimony. She highlighted the complex legal implications and uncertainties surrounding the issue. The possible ramifications of rejecting federal funds include budget cuts, protracted court battles, and Tennesseans paying federal income taxes for education support that goes to other states.