During her first formal legislative hearing, Tennessee Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds highlighted Tuesday the legal unknowns if state officials choose to reject K-12 education funds and emphasized the role federal dollars play in day-to-day school operations.
Reynolds testified before the Joint Working Group on Federal Education Funding ― her first public appearance since her appointment as commissioner earlier this year.
Republican leadership appointed the panel to consider whether Tennessee should reject federal K-12 education funding, and identify objectionable “strings attached” to federal dollars. The group met three days last week, and is expected to conclude public hearings on Wednesday.
During her testimony, Reynolds emphasized the important role federal funds play in daily functions for schools across the state, and indicated uncertainty should the state choose to reject the funding.
“The issue of accepting or rejecting federal funding is a complicated one, with numerous legal implications and uncertainties,” Reynolds said. “For these reasons, it’s hard to project exactly how decisions would play out if made.”
Reynolds cited Tennessee’s progress in post-pandemic learning loss recovery efforts, growth in literacy rates, and the state’s new student-based funding formula.
“Understanding how federal funds support and interact with these initiatives will ensure we can continue improving educational and life outcomes for Tennessee students,” she said.
Federal funds support nearly 1 million students
All 147 local school districts in Tennessee receive at least one federal grant, according to TDOE. Out of the 1,900 public schools in the state, 1,200 implement a Title I program to support economically disadvantaged children.
“The scope of federal education funding across our state is wide and diverse,” said Debby Thompson, the Department of Education’s assistant commissioner of federal programs and oversight.
More than 990,400 students in Tennessee receive direct support from federal funds, and federal funds support more than 100,000 school personnel across the state.
More:Tennessee K-12 funding: How much federal, state and local money every district gets
“We believe that LEAs are utilizing federal funding streams to provide support to their students and teachers,” Thompson said.
Four programs funded with federal dollars – Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, and USDA child nutrition program – account for nearly 10% of the state’s education budget for this fiscal year. While federal rules allow districts to use up to 20% of their grant allocations to administer federally funded programs, Thompson said Tennessee districts on average use under 8% of the funds on administrative costs.
Food waste estimated 30% nationally
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, again expressed concerns over food waste incurred through the USDA’s school lunch program. TDOE officials said that the state does not measure school food waste in Tennessee, but that nationally, about 31% of food prepared for school meals is wasted.
“If, in fact, 31% nationally is a good indication, then we are in fact losing a lot of dollars,” Ragan said.
Thompson outlined several measures Tennessee schools have implemented to avoid food waste, including offering breakfast in classrooms, expanding lunch hours, and allowing students to share unopened, wrapped foods with their peers with “share tables.”
Anderson County officials studied breakfast food waste, and found that about 20% of breakfast foods were placed on a “share table” and were discarded if not taken. The waste accounted for about $139 per school, per day, and $24,742 for those items each year.
Thompson said that because of the reimbursement funding mechanism by which the USDA program operates – based on meals served – schools cannot serve less and use savings for other budget areas.
“Districts are not going to get reimbursed if they don’t serve the food,” Thompson said. “It becomes a bit of a catch-22. They’re not going to generate funding to get reimbursed for the food if they don’t serve it.”
House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, questioned Republican colleagues’ concerns over the school lunch program. Clemmons attended the panel on Tuesday, though he is not a member of the working group. Neither of the two Democrats on the panel were present.
“I’m a little confused as to what their endgame is here. It sounds to me as an observer that they’re interested in denying public school children access to food,” Clemmons told The Tennessean. “I really don’t know what they’re getting at here. They’ve yet to logically or rationally formulate an argument or are valid concerns.”
Can the state reject some but not all funds?
Officials continued to consider how the state could go about rejecting some federal funding. Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, asked education officials whether it would be possible to reject some, but not all federal program funds.
“That’s a tough question to answer because we just don’t know what the federal government would do,” Deputy Commissioner of Operations Sam Pearcy said.
Piercey said federal agencies calculate a state’s funding amounts using a funding formula that is based on what Title I funds the state receives.
“If we don’t necessarily take Title I, that’s going to create some additional questions about how those others might work,” Pearcy said. “I would assume that most of the grant funds that are bundled together, under ESEA, for example, are probably going to maintain bundled together.”
ESAs do not use any federal funds
Tennessee’s Education Savings Accounts — a type of school voucher program that provides nearly $9,000 in grant funding to income-qualifying students in some counties to attend private school with public funds — does not involve any federal funding, TDOE officials confirmed.
Allocations for the ESA program are based on state and local per-pupil funding averages, and do not account for any federal support.
Standardized testing objectionable
During the hearing, lawmakers on the panel did not identify specific “strings” or requirements attached to federal funding that they find objectionable.
Asked by spectators what strings he would like to see eliminated after the hearing, Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, said federally required testing and student evaluations, and food waste.
“Testing is one of the strings that is required,” Hensley said. “We wouldn’t stop testing, but we may cut down on some of the tests. … We have to still abide by all the federal laws and rules that apply to educating students.”
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who appointed the panel, has cited the federal mandate to administer standardized testing like the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, as a reason for the state to reject federal funding.
Hensley said foregoing federal funding would not mean ending certain federal requirements.
“All those federal protections are still there. We have to provide education for special ed students whether it’s federally funded or state funded,” Hensley said. “We have to still abide by all the federal laws and rules that apply to educating students.”
Vivian Jones covers state government and politics for The Tennessean. Reach her at[email protected].