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Federal documents say millions of education dollars for TN students in jeopardy

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The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) is sending a warning to the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE), saying the state must make changes or risk losing part of their federal funds.

A letter to Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn outlines concerns from the USDOE.

The letter says the state didn’t properly calculate or administer parts of state testing as required by law.

“The assessment and accountability compliance issues are significant because they not only impact the state’s ability to provide clear and transparent information to the public about school performance, but also result in the state using information that is not comparable across schools in TDOE’s statewide accountability system,” the letter states.

State leaders have 30 days to submit evidence that the state has taken steps to correct these issues, or risk losing Title I, part A funding, which helps fund low-income schools. Federal documents say the state received more than $328 million in Title I, Part A funds in 2021.

"I am placing a condition on TDOE’s Title I, Part A grant award until such time as these issues are fully resolved," the letter states.

“It's a significant portion. If those dollars were to stop, it would impact communities across the state,” Professional Educators of Tennessee Executive Director JC Bowman said.

The letter comes a year after the USDOE did a performance review of Tennessee’s K- 12 grant programs and education laws.

That review found ways schools either used federal funds inappropriately or didn’t provide documentation proving otherwise. It identifies 18 ways the state needs to take corrective action.

Some of the findings include discrepancies like missing student data on state assessments, missing documentation about grant funds for underperforming schools, and misuse of funds for programs to help English Learners.

“We need to get that fixed because if we don't do it now, we are going to absolutely hurt our public schools,” Bowman said.

FOX 17 News reached out to the TDOE asking what’s being done to correct these issues.

A spokesperson sent a statement saying the state is working on updating their education laws, known as Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and correcting the issues identified by the USDOE. The statement is as follows:

The department is in the midst of the public engagement process required by law in order to amend the state's ESSA plan.
Since Tennessee’s ESSA state plan was written over five years ago and approved by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) in 2018, USDOE has updated its regulations/guidance, and Tennessee’s ESSA plan has been monitored by USDOE for the first time (Spring 2021).
Monitoring yielded several findings related to our state's ESSA plan that must be addressed through an ESSA plan amendment, and Tennessee does not have discretion on monitoring findings. The department will amend Tennessee’s ESSA plan to address specific components necessary to address monitoring findings, and USDOE's timeline requires these changes to go into effect for the 2022-23 accountability cycle.
The department will be sending a letter to USDOE in response to their Sept. 22, 2022 letter, but has not yet responded.

A spokesperson with the USDOE says as long as grantees take steps to fix issues, the government will not revoke funding.

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