House Speaker Cameron Sexton

State House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) is pushing legislation to opt the state out of federal K-12 education funding in order to gain more control over Tennessee schools. 

“Tennessee is currently receiving about $1.8 billion in federal K-12 education funding,” Sexton’s spokesperson Doug Kufner says in a statement. “What the speaker is considering is using state funds to replace federal dollars currently flowing in to fund education in our state without federal stipulations. He believes all children should receive a high-quality education — the Tennessee way — regardless of where they live.”

These federal dollars account for $1.8 billion of the state’s education budget, which totaled around $8.3 billion in the 2022 fiscal year, and they support services that benefit English learners, low-income students and those with disabilities. The Associated Press, which initially broke the story on Wednesday, notes that no other state has forgone federal education funding before, and that Sexton has started discussing this bill with Gov. Bill Lee, lawmakers and lobbyists. Bill Powers (R-Clarksville) is co-sponsoring a caption bill with Sexton that would make room for this legislation to be considered. According to the AP, both McNally and Lee are open to the proposal.  

Sexton has supported wedge-issue-driven education legislation in the past. Last year, for example, he co-sponsored a bill that eventually became a law expanding the state textbook and instructional materials quality commission and giving it the power to ban books across the state. He also appointed Laurie Cardoza-Moore, an Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist who supports book banning, to the textbook commission. Sexton has also voiced support for laws that restrict how students learn about race — a topic commonly yet incorrectly referred to as “critical race theory.”  

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation creating a new education funding formula that is set to go into effect this year. Lee has proposed adding more than $1 billion in recurring funds to the formula. Even still, the Education Law Center last year ranked Tennessee among the bottom states when it comes to per-pupil funding.

"I think it's very concerning when you talk about ... the state being on the hook for replacing nearly $2 billion in federal education funding, some of which is paid by our own taxpayers," says state director of the Education Trust in Tennessee Gini Pupo-Walker. "We may say that we have the money now to replace that money, but we might not in five years. ... If you're going to take them at face value, [that] they're going to replace every one of those dollars, well, so be it. But will they be spent the same way? Can students and families expect that the design of those federal dollars — which is to say, to support students who are most vulnerable, often the most behind — will they be used in the same way? And will the rights of those students be honored and protected?"

Jade Byers, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Lee, offered the Scene the following statement: "Although we haven’t seen the details of the legislation yet, the Governor is always interested in working with the Speaker to ensure Tennessee students have the best access to a high-quality education."

Correction: This article originally reported that Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) co-sponsored a caption bill with Sexton that is in fact co-sponsored by state Sen. Bill Powers. We regret the error.

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