TN lawmakers split on accepting $2 billion in education funding

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — To reject or not to reject $2 billion in federal funding for education in Tennessee: the issue is a major debate dividing state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as school districts say the money is needed right here at home.

School districts in Shelby County and across the state are watching very closely to see if Tennessee will reject nearly $2 billion in federal education funding. On WREG’s Live at 9, Democratic lawmakers from Memphis said it would be a major setback for schools.

“They could miss out on a tremendous amount of resources,” said State Rep. Antonio Parkinson.

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State Senator Raumesh Akbari serves on a task force studying the issue.

“If we reject these federal funds that means we’re not willing to comply with federal protections like the disabilities act or the civil rights act or Title 9,” Akbari said.

Earlier this week Toni Williams, the interim Memphis-Shelby County Schools superintendent, spoke to lawmakers about the need for federal dollars.

“Our superintendent spoke this past week and said look we have 100-year-old buildings and 50-year-old buildings and if you have extra money, help us with infrastructure, help us with teacher salaries,” Akbari said.

Republican lawmakers say not so fast, especially on the issue of using federal dollars to increase teacher pay.

“Okay, we’ve [the state] increased teacher salaries by up to almost $50,000,” said Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Cameron Sexton. “We will continue to increase teacher salaries. What else do they have?”

Republican state leaders have also said they want education funding without any strings attached.

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“It’s really easy to be a minority and say we need to throw in more money, but what’s their plan?” Sexton said.

“I was talking to some of our school leaders. I want to find out if there is an end-around in the event the state does decide to forgo these dollars,” Parkinson said. “Can the schools or the districts go directly to the feds to recoup those dollars?”

But for now, the school funding debate has Democrats accusing Republicans of playing politics at the expense of Tennessee students.

“This isn’t about trying to put any type of system in place that’s going to yield better educational outcomes,” said Rep. G.A. Hardaway. “This is about advancing pure political ambitions.”

The state task force on federal K-12 funding will meet again next week and recommend a strategy for lawmakers when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

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