The House K-12 Subcommittee that approved the retention bill also yesterday voted to establish a "federal education funding task force," to study whether Tennessee should refuse all federal education money.
The bill is the brainchild of House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who floated the idea earlier in the legislative session. He has suggested the state would be better off getting rid of the $1.8 billion in annual federal funding for Tennessee schools, and the federal regulations that go with it.
That has concerned some education and community advocates, who note that much of the federal funding supports lower-income students and students with disabilities. Sexton has said the state — currently flush with cash from booming sales taxes — would make up for any lost funds and would have the opportunity to build better programs to serve disadvantaged children.
Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, who presented the bill on Sexton's behalf, said, "The goal of the task force is to identify the amount of federal funding received by the state in each political subdivision for educational programs or purposes in the current fiscal year; each federal law, regulation or program from which this state receives federal funding; and whether the state has the option not to comply with or participate in with each respective federal law, regulation or program."
Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, objected to the bill. He noted that it would create an 11-member committee with three members each from the state House and Senate, two school superintendents, two teachers and the state commissioner of education.
"You've got two teachers, two administrators and a bunch of politicians," McKenzie said during Tuesday's hearing. "The way the committee is stacked, I think we know what the outcome's going to be of this study."
Moody said there was no foregone conclusion about whether Tennessee would eventually decide to be the first state to turn down federal education funding. McKenzie replied that Tennesseans pay federal taxes and their schools should receive their share of federal funds.
"I think this task force is ill-conceived at this point, and I think its mission is a very, very dangerous mission," he said.
The task force still needs approval in both the House and Senate. Like the retention bill, it is up for approval today in the Senate Education Committee. The hearing starts at noon Central time/1 p.m. Eastern, and you can find a link to a livestream of it here.