Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) laid out the next steps needed for Tennessee to possibly reject federal education dollars.

On Monday, he filed legislation that would create an 11-member task force, helmed by  Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, to study the process required for the state to forego federal funding.

The proposed committee would begin meeting monthly in August and is expected to deliver a strategic plan to Governor Bill Lee and the General Assembly by December 1. In her role as chair, the legislation further requires that Schwinn notify the U.S. Department of Education by August 31 and advise them on Tennessee’s intent to explore the possibility of Tennessee rejecting federal funding.

Schwinn’s appointment as chair of the proposed task force presents her with a potential conflict of interest. Over the past several months, the commissioner has made several trips out of state to meet with non-profit groups on ways to grow federal investment in education. Last week, she was a member of a panel at SXSW EDU focusing on the importance of school funding and how it relates to educational attainment, earnings, crime, and poverty.

In response to an inquiry from The Tennessee Star about the appropriateness of Schwinn heading the proposed task force, Sexton’s office said via email, “As we work through the process of moving away from K-12 education funding with federal stipulations attached, the General Assembly will require considerable data and information from the Department of Education. Therefore, it is appropriate to have Commissioner Schwinn as one of the eleven members on the task force created by our legislation.”

The proposed task force will be comprised of the following individuals:

  • Three members of the state Senate as selected by the speaker of the Senate
  • Three members of the state House as selected by the speaker of the House
  • One district superintendent appointed by the speaker of the Senate
  • One district superintendent appointed by the speaker of the House
  • One teacher appointed by the speaker of the Senate
  • One teacher appointed by the speaker of the House

There is no provision for Lee to select a member of the commission. The bill requires that in making appointments, the Speakers strive to ensure that membership is inclusive, reflects the geographic, urban, rural, and economic diversity of the state, and is diverse in race, sex, and experience.

On Tuesday, the bill appeared in the House K-12 education subcommittee.  State Representative Debra Moody (R-Covington) presented the bill for Sexton. Moody serves as chair of the House Education Instruction Subcommittee.

Following Moody’s brief explanation of the bill, State Representative Sam McKenzie (D-Knoxville) questioned the seriousness of this endeavor while also being critical of the proposed makeup of the task force.  Mckenzie said “two teachers, two district superintendents, and six politicians” is a “stacked deck.” The Democrat from Knoxville noted that Tennessee was 46th in the country in education and wondered if this is what Tennesse “should be focused on.”

Chairman Representative Kirk Haston (R-Lobelville) responded, “If we are that low, and we’ve been taking the money all along, maybe we’ll find out that’s been the problem.”

Sexton’s proposed legislation tasks committee members with a top-bottom review of federal funding received by Tennessee for education, including the level of funding, how it is distributed, how funds are utilized, and the potential ramifications of rejecting funds. Tennessee receives roughly $1.8 billion in federal funding annually. Most of which supports low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities.

Critics charge that Sexton’s plan is a means to withdraw support from those students. As voiced by State Representative John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) on Twitter, “No state has ever rejected federal funding for its students and schools,” because: a) the funds primarily serve disadvantaged and protect special needs students; b) TN taxpayers would be billed 2x for same underfunded schools; c) it’s completely/utterly inane & fiscally absurd.”

The accusations come despite repeated reassurances that the state will continue existing funding through state tax dollars. The speaker argues that the money from the federal government is attached to too many requirements and that by rejecting those funds, the state would “no longer have federal government interference” and can educate students how Tennessee sees fit.

Tennessee is in the transition phase to a new state school funding formula. The new procedure, Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA), assigns additional funding weights to the previously mentioned student groups.

– –  –

TC Weber is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. He also writes the blog Dad Gone Wild. Follow TC on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]. He’s the proud parent of two public school children and the spouse of a public school teacher.