ROGERSVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — This week, state lawmakers in Nashville began investigating the questions that State House Speaker Cameron Sexton posed in February: how would the schools across the state benefit, or what would they lose, if lawmakers rejected federal education funding?
Financially, it’s possible, according to testimony from the Sycamore Institute, a non-partisan public policy research organization.
But do school officials have a preference?
Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson, who testified at the second hearing of the Joint Working Group on Federal Education funding, told News Channel 11 he has a question for state lawmakers: why not keep the federal funding and use state surpluses to fund other projects?
“If there’s that much money sitting at the state that they could replace these federal funds with, there’s a lot of projects specifically in rural school systems, that those funds could be targeted for that would make our jobs a lot easier and consequently, and more importantly, remove those barriers and those burdens of those projects off the taxpayers backs,” Hixson said.
State Senator and working group co-chair Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) told News Channel 11 that that question misses the point of the task force.
“It’s one of those you can’t just say if you’ve got all this extra money, [you] want to do this,” Lundberg said.
Rather, Lundberg said the goal of the hearings is to ask, “What we really want to get to is what is it cost to comply with (federal requirements)?”
Lundberg was optimistic about the information gathered in the first week of hearings. For one thing, Lundberg said early estimates of how much federal education funding the state receives were too high.
Additionally, the committee reportedly found some staff positions tasked with documenting the use of federal funds and ensuring compliance are federally funded.
“I felt reassured in many ways because the federal government, I did not realize, paid for some of that administrative cost, which was great,” Lundberg said.
Even if the money could be easily replaced with state funds, Hixson said, schools would still be bound by federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide services for certain groups of students.
“Regardless of the funds that come to us, we still have a moral and ethical obligation to meet those needs for those students,” Hixson said.
In fact, Hixson pointed out that when it comes to government funding, nothing comes without conditions.
“I think they (lawmakers) are having a hard time determining what those (strings) are exactly,” Hixson said. “Because we have strings attached to state funds, we have strings attached to federal funds. And the large amount of those strings are what we can and can’t do with those funds.”
For example, federal funds earmarked for school lunches through the USDA can only be used for school lunches. Funds for special education programs can only be used for special education.
Regardless of whether any concrete action comes from the hearings, Lundberg said he’s glad the state is using its resources to investigate education funding.
“It’s one of those ‘we’re learning more, and that’s healthy,'” said Lundberg. “Frankly, I hope taxpayers expect us to know this.”
Hearings continue next week and will include testimony from the state Department of Education.
“They are truly a go-between with the federal government,” Lundberg said.
But there will be one hole in the hearing schedule. The federal Department of Education has declined to appear in person or via Zoom, something Lundberg said “disappointed” him.
Committee members are preparing a list of questions for the department to answer via email.
The committee is scheduled to prepare a written report once hearings are complete. Lundberg said that would be sometime next year.