What’s driving GOP plan to forgo federal funds for education?

Betty BeanKnox Scene

When Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, an ambitious guy who wants to be governor, first started talking about not accepting federal dollars for public education, I didn’t pay much attention to him.

I remember reading about it back in February, but it was such a preposterous notion that I decided he was talking to hear his head rattle, as my grandmother used to say. It wasn’t like he’d figured out a way to relieve us of the burden of paying federal income taxes, so why would we turn down $1.8 billion to help pay for things like aides for special education students, extra help for kids living below the poverty line, after-school programs and school lunches and breakfasts for students who would go hungry otherwise?

We get way more than lunch money for that $1.8 billion.

His rhetoric sounded more like saber-rattling designed to appeal to their far-right constituents – recycled talking points plucked from 1960s segregationist propaganda rather than anything that was likely to happen in the 21st Century, so I didn’t go looking for it after I got distracted by more explosive issues like the backlash over forcing rape victims to have their rapists’ babies and the nightmare of the Covenant School massacre.

And I wasn’t the only one. Sexton didn’t make many new friends during that period and some of us got pretty interested in the allegations about whether he actually lived in his Crossville district or was over-billing us for his per diem expenses. But we moved on to bigger issues when his “leadership” caucus decided to make national celebrities of Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson and create the Tennessee Three by trying to kick them out of their elected seats.

Pure genius, or something.

But Sexton’s House Republican supermajority wouldn’t rest on their laurels, and continued to show out in August by conducting an accomplishment-free “special session” on gun safety, which served as another distraction from the issue of rejecting federal education funds, a situation he and Senate Speaker Randy McNally remedied last week when they announced that they have appointed a joint committee to analyze the costs and benefits of accepting (or rejecting) funds from the U.S. Department of Education. No other state has ever turned down federal education money.

Education specialist Marta W. Aldrich analyzes the issue in this excellent column in the Tennessee Chalk Beat.

And finally, here’s my take, which is a wee bit cynical, but not beyond the realm of the possible, I fear.

Cameron Sexton wants to be governor, but he’s gotten pretty dinged-up lately, and his major obstacle is a massive one: Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, a relative newcomer to politics who had a long career as a professional wrestler and commands a national fan base. He is also an ambitious, ultra-rightwing libertarian who combines a likeable, soft-spoken demeanor with incendiary rhetoric and the extreme positions that are catnip to the MAGA crowd.

So, Sexton is looking for red meat to throw to the GOP base. And what’s Jacobs going to do, advocate for Washington bureaucrats?

Note: This race will be decided in the Republican primary, but the issues will be so big and so easily understood that perhaps a Democrat might have a puncher’s chance in the general election by reminding voters of the last time we turned down free money from Washington – the Medicaid fiasco.

The Tennessee Hospital Association says Tennessee has experienced 16 hospital closures, with 13 of those being rural, since 2010 — the second highest rate in the United States. Of the 95 counties that make up the state, 82 percent are rural.

Been to an emergency room lately?

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.


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