Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton to the newsmaker line to discuss his recent proposal in the Tennessee General Assembly which would reject federal education funding in the state.
Leahy: On the newsmaker line right now is speaker of the House Cam Sexton. Speaker Sexton, heads are blowing up at the Department of Education in Washington, DC, as we speak. You made a bold proposal yesterday. Tell us about it.
Sexton: I think liberals in Tennessee are losing their minds, too. What I said yesterday, and this goes back to when we were campaigning this last year and traveling the state and talking to people, Tennesseans are tired of the federal government reaching down into our state and telling us what to do and how to do it simply because they give us funding.
And so we’ve been thinking about it. We’ve been watching third and fourth-grade reading, retention rates, be abysmal. We’re looking at what the federal government is trying to pass down.
We have the TCAP test, all these standardized tests, not because of the state, but because the federal government tells us that we have to give them because they’re giving us money. And there are all these other things in the classroom that they’re out there telling us that we have to do.
And so the amount of money we’re talking about is about $1.8 billion. And so simply, what I said this week at a luncheon at the Farm Bureau meeting was, I think it’s time in the Department of Education that we tell the federal government to keep their $1.8 billion. We will fund that portion ourselves.
So we’ll continue to fund all the different title ones and twos the school lunch program and the vocational education, IDEAs. But I’ll tell you what, if we are right now in financial shape, which I think we are, to fund that much money and take the strings and the situations and get the federal government out of our classrooms, I think it’s time that we do it. And that’s what I proposed.
Leahy: You can hear the cheers all across middle Tennessee right now.
Simon: And right here, too.
Leahy: Both of us are just absolutely elated. It’s Christmas in February. That’s what I think.
Simon: Do it with all federal money, hospitals, everything.
Leahy: No other state in the union has done this yet. They’ve talked about it in South Carolina and in Oklahoma. When you brought this idea up, and I guess you’ve spoken to the governor about it. I get the indication that he’s open to the idea. Tell us about how that might proceed.
Sexton: Yes, the governor is open; the lieutenant governor is open. Even Commissioner Penny Schwinn is open. I got members in the House who are open. I think one of the things is, you look at states I know Texas has considered, and I’m sure Florida has. But you know how it is. Once you get over a certain level of funding, it’s very hard to cut the strings.
And that’s what the federal government tries to do. And so we’re at a point where $1.8 billion is a lot of money, but we can do it right now, based on how well our economy is doing. I think the next steps are we’re going to continue to have conversations. There needs to be a conversation. You can’t do it this coming year; that’s much too quick.
And so you have to have a conversation if we’re going to move in this, how long do we need to set it up to get everything implemented, to move things to the state to make sure we have it right? When is it feasible that we can cut the strings?
We need to really have a hard conversation about that, but first, we got to get everybody on the same page and say, you know what? This is what we want to do. We’re tired of the federal government telling us what to do. And I think we could be a leader. And I think what you’ll see is the red Republican states that are probably smaller in nature are able to do this quicker than the bigger ones.
But it sends a powerful message that we’re no longer waiting on Congress to tell or a Republican president to come in and eliminate the Department of Education at the federal level. I’m tired of waiting for them for decades to do something that they say they want to do when we can just go ahead and do it ourselves here in the state of Tennessee.
Simon: So how long do you anticipate this is going to take?
Sexton: I don’t know. That’s a question that we need to have about how to process it. I don’t think you could do it this year. I think that’s much too quick. But I think feasibly, you could do it next year. In this year’s budget, we have $3.2 billion of new revenue that’s recurring. And so we have the capability.
The governor wisely did not spend all that $3.2 billion in recurring. He did some non-recurring. So that money will come back next year to us. So it’s not like we’re losing the recurring dollars.
So we have the capability of talking about it this year, getting set up, spending all summer and all fall working towards something, if that’s what we want to do next year, which is what I would propose.
Leahy: The other question that I have for you, Speaker Sexton, is you look at that $1.8 billion that the Feds give the state. There are strings attached, I guess. What is the overall state budget? $8.3 billion for K-12 public school education?
Sexton: Somewhere around there. I think federal money makes up about 22 percent to 24 percent of the budget.
Leahy: Here’s my question for you. What are the administrative costs, of complying with all the rules and regulations of the Feds to get that $1.8 billion?
Sexton: Well, that’s true. And so maybe we can do it more efficiently. So it doesn’t really cost us $1.8 billion because we don’t need the bureaucracy to run it because of how the federal government’s doing and all the reporting mechanisms that you have to report back up.
It’s like insurance. You have a doctor’s office. They don’t employ employees in the doctor’s office to help the patients. Most of it is to deal with billing the insurance companies because it’s so complicated. And so that’s another question.
Are we spending a lot of money in bureaucracy, having to report back to the federal government that we don’t have to spend any more because we’re doing it ourselves and we can be more efficient in it? All those questions are great things to look at. I think in the end; there’s a lot of money tied up in a bureaucracy that we may not have to have anymore.
Leahy: Do you anticipate that a bill to accomplish this will be passed in this 2023 session of the Tennessee General Assembly?
Sexton: I think we’ll pass something, yeah. Now will it say that we’re going to implement it the following year, or do we pass something that says we’re going to put together members and we’re going to look at and work with the department and the governor, and then the goal is to come back in January with an itinerary and this is how we’re doing it.
And then let’s lay the work, and let’s lay the budget dollars budget-wise. It will be the next year’s budget at the earliest that we could probably do. So if that’s the case, let’s go ahead and set aside money out of the budget that will be proposed next year and then let’s work on how to handle the process and how to make this a smooth transition and not make it bumpy.
Leahy: In the House, State Representative Mark White is the chairman of the Education Administration committee. He’s been a teacher of his whole career, K12, and I think now he’s working with Lipscomb University here in Nashville.
He’s an influential and powerful member of the House on the issue of education. And I think I would say he sometimes has been slow to look at changes. Have you talked to him about it? What is his reaction to it?
Sexton: I haven’t talked to Chairman White. I’ve talked to Chair Patsy Hazelwood and members of my leadership team, and I’ve talked to, obviously, lieutenant governor as well as the Governor. I’ve had Senate leadership people after I mentioned it on the Farm Bureau luncheon, I think just yesterday and they’ve come up and said, hey, we’re all for it.
I’d be hard-pressed to think that there’s any Republican that says if we can fund education ourselves without the federal government, they wouldn’t want to move in that direction if it doesn’t mean any loss of services or anything of that nature.
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