5 Things Equity Advocates Should Know About… Tennessee’s Joint Working Group on Federal Education Funding
1. There are three main components of federal education funding. Each component directly impacts every student in Tennessee, especially students with disabilities, students from low-income backgrounds, and students in rural communities.
In FY2019, the last year before ESSER funding was awarded, the state of Tennessee’s budget was $10.6 billion, $1.1 billion of which was provided by the federal government.
- 21% is allocated to students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The purpose of this funding is to provide instructional and additional support services for students with disabilities that meet the free, appropriate public education (FAPE) standard (TDOE, 2023).
- 27% of the federal education dollars comes from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was crafted by former Governor, U.S. Senator, and US Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander. These funds are designed to support students from low-income families in closing achievement, but they can also be used for activities that benefit all students. Allocation of funds could include strategizing ways to increase family engagement, upgrading instructional materials, or addressing school safety issues (TDOE, 2018).
- Lastly, 39% of federal education dollars is used for school nutrition programs. These programs include the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program, and the related administrative costs (The Sycamore Institute, 2023).
School districts across the state of Tennessee that are most dependent on federal funding are those with a higher concentration of low-income students, higher concentration of students with disabilities, lower local fiscal capacity, lower achievement on assessments, and more rural districts (The Sycamore Institute, 2023).
2. If one of the numerous streams of federal funding is rejected, it is unclear if all streams of federal funding are at stake.
Working group members posed this recurring question to presenters: would rejecting one stream of federal funding jeopardize the State’s ability to accept and receive other buckets? For example, if the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school nutrition funding was rejected, would Tennessee still be able to receive Title I funding? The overwhelming response by those that testified was this is unchartered territory, and that is a question for legal counsel. Organizations also noted that rejecting one stream of federal funding could cause a negative ripple effect from the federal government that may result in legal challenges.
3. No state has ever rejected federal education funding, but there are strategies to resolve conflict.
If this legislative proposal were approved, Tennessee would be the first state in the history of the United States to reject federal education funding. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a non-partisan organization that works with state legislatures to increase their effectiveness and serve as a resource when dealing with the federal government, presented to the working group on the third day of meetings. According to the NCSL, no other state has found federal mandates associated with federal education dollars so constrictive that rejection measures were warranted. However, there are strategies to resolve state conflicts with federal requirements. For example, states can exercise the flexibility that is afforded to them in federal law or apply for a waiver. Tennessee leveraged waivers during the pandemic for the 2019-2020 school year to waive statewide assessment, accountability, and reporting requirements in ESEA (TDOE, 2020). If a clear and compelling case is presented, changes to federal law are possible.
4. Members of the task force expressed concern with food waste and administrative costs.
The largest portion of Tennessee’s federal education allocation is used for school nutrition programs. Questions from the panel surrounding nutrition programs centered on the issue of food waste. While district leaders were not able to provide quantitative data on the amount of food waste, they did uplift that there are measures in place to mitigate waste. Examples of this include intentional planning by school nutrition staff, allowing students to do taste-testing in the summer, and sharing tables during meals. Currently, there is no wide-scale system in place to measure food waste in Tennessee schools. Many questions also focused on how much federal funding was being allocated towards administering and monitoring funding. The Tennessee Department of Education explained that of the federal funds allocated for ESSA and IDEA, only 7.75% and 15.44% was used for administrative costs, respectively.
5. District leaders noted that they would allocate the funding in the same manner if it were from the state instead of the federal government. They also expressed the need for additional funding for pressing school infrastructure needs, urging state leaders to invest any additional dollars in that manner.
On the second day of testimony, the working group heard from district leaders in Hawkins County Schools, Jackson-Madison County Schools, Memphis-Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools. The working group members posed numerous questions around what additional flexibility districts would have if there were no longer purse strings attached to money they were being allocated. The consensus was the money would still be used to serve the targeted student groups, and district leaders expressed a moral obligation to do so. Senator Akbari asked district leaders to enumerate what strings were attached to federal funding that has made it difficult for their districts to use the money. The question was met with no response. The senator pushed further and inquired if there were no purse strings, would it change how money was spent. The overwhelming consensus was that existing funding is pulled so thin that every bit of funding is needed. They also requested that if there is enough extra funding in the state budget to be able to reject $1.1 billion dollars, then that money should be allocated towards ailing school infrastructure.
- The task force suggested that rejecting federal funding would allow the state more flexibility concerning state testing, with the possible option to no longer require the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). If Tennessee chose not to conduct annual TCAP testing, how would we know which students are on track, which teachers are effective, and how well schools are serving students? How would the state compute A-F grades?
- During the five days of meetings the task force did not invite parents, students, teachers, or Tennessee-based education advocacy organizations to testify. How will excluding these key stakeholders impact the decision by the panel and influence their report? Will there be future opportunities for stakeholder feedback?
- Let’s not lose focus about what is at stake. At the center of every education policy decision is a student. If federal funding is rejected, how will we ensure all students, especially those from rural communities, students with disabilities, and students from low-income backgrounds will continue to receive the necessary support, interventions, and services to receive an equitable education?