A special legislative panel in Tennessee tasked with studying whether the state should reject federal education funding has wrapped up its first week.
The GOP-led panel heard from public-school leaders who urged them not to cut funding.
"The existing funding is pulled so thin in education, that we are putting Band-Aids over every single element. [It] deserves more funding to be able to achieve the strategies we have for our students," said Hank Clay, chief of staff for Metro Nashville Public Schools.
The funds in question amount to nearly $2 billion — the majority of which caters to low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities.
To date, no state has ever rejected federal education funds, but Republican lawmakers in Tennessee say rejecting the funds, which would then be replaced with state dollars, would free the state's schools of cumbersome federal rules and regulations.
However, school leaders say more money is needed in addition to federal dollars.
"Maybe look at the rural or poor districts with the biggest needs that can get additional money from the state if we're talking about additional revenues you're willing to offer," said Matt Hixson, Hawkins County Director of Schools.
Researchers with the Sycamore Institute said the state likely has enough money to replace the federal dollars but noted "much is unknown" about what will happen if the state rejects the funding, plus there could be a potential court battle.
Some fear rejecting federal funds would mean a loss of federal protections and laws prohibiting discrimination. The panel's co-chair, Republican Sen. Jon Lundberg, says it's not looking to cut funding but rather "strings attached" to federal funding, but so far lawmakers haven't specifically cited any strings and neither have school leaders.
"What strings have you all found attached to these funds that have made it more difficult for your school districts to utilize them, if any?" asked Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari.
At the end of the panel's second meeting, frustration ensued.
"I'm a little frustrated and I say that because from the presentations I heard, which were all great and informative, I get the feeling everybody that comes before us is defensive of why I've gotta have this money, and try as I might it's not about taking this money away. Our charge is about what is coming from the federal government," said Lundberg.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Education were supposed to testify Wednesday but didn't show up.
"They can only offer quote, 'technical assistance' to the committee and they have stated that if members wish to submit questions, they will do their best to get them answered," said Lundberg.
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