Commentary: Reject Federal Money for Education, Really? by JC Bowman

Feb 16, 2023 at 11:30 am by JC Bowman

Historically, the Federal Government had limited involvement in Public Education. That changed in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law.

ESEA doubled federal expenditures for K-12 education and gave the federal government much more input into education. That has been the debate ever since, central control of education versus state/local control.

Speaker Cameron Sexton shares a view that many people in Tennessee share: Washington mandates are hurting, and not helping many Tennessee schools and students. He has a point. Sometimes federal mandates or programs have little to do with actual education. Certain federal mandates stand in the way of innovative state and local reforms, while others force state and local officials to be more concerned with paperwork than performance. Sexton is right, Tennessee must focus on academic achievement instead of conforming to bureaucratic requirements.

A spokesman for Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally’s said: “McNally thinks a discussion about forgoing this money, a relatively small part of overall education funding, in order to maintain more control over how we educate our Tennessee students is a constructive conversation to have.”

Many believe it may take as much money to manage the program as it does to take the money. Speaker Sexton made a similar point on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC.

Sexton said, “Are we spending a lot of money in bureaucracy, having to report back to the federal government that we don’t have to spend any more because we’re doing it ourselves and we can be more efficient in it? All those questions are great things to look at. I think in the end, there’s a lot of money tied up in a bureaucracy that we may not have to have anymore.”

Federal dollars make up a small part of our K-12 education funding. However, federal money is critical for low-income areas and special education students. Speaker Sexton stated if the federal dollars were taken away, “The state will pick up the cost and still fund those things, but we will be free of the federal regulations.” 

However, the Devil is always in the details. While the idea to eliminate federal funds seems simple enough, the details are more complicated and likely to create new problems. Many people –both sides of the political aisle---do not have confidence in the Tennessee Department of Education to manage that task and the fear is that we are just replacing federal oversight with state oversight. 

We must start at the same place: education is a state and local responsibility. We have maintained we must give much more flexibility to states, local communities, and schools to determine how federal education dollars are spent. The federal government should consolidate funding for all categorical programs and provide to the states in a block grant. A state or school district could enter into an agreement with the federal government demonstrating academic improvement. In exchange for federal funds, states or districts could spend the funds as they saw fit to achieve academic results.

Both Speaker Sexton and Lieutenant Governor McNally have said it is time to have “hard conversations.” I agree. Speaker Sexton recognized it will take time. Harvard University’s Brendan Pelsue said it best: “Politicians must also effectively prove the existence of the problem, and they must do so at a moment in history when the fix they are proposing is politically possible.”

I have laid out some ideas here, that should also be on the table. Speaker Sexton is correct in stating: “Tennesseans are tired of the federal government reaching down into our state and telling us what to do and how to do it simply because they give us funding.” We must involve our US Senators and US House Members in this discussion.

We should have had these conversations when we considered the new Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) funding formula. We could have looked at how to replace federal dollars at that time and make sure to cover all existing federal programs for schools. Perhaps there is a way we can do everything, allowing states and districts to use federal funds without the bureaucratic strings to meet the goals for all students. We look forward to talking to Speaker Sexton and seeing if we can find common ground here.

Will we really reject federal money for education? It is a hard conversation. Leaving our tax dollars on the table does not seem attractive. However, I agree we have surrendered too much control of education in Tennessee for federal dollars and bad policy directives. There may be a way we can do everything, including allowing states and districts to use federal funds without troublesome bureaucratic strings. We welcome that conversation.


JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee

Sections: Education