Schroeder’s USDA gender ID policy comments criticized

CHEYENNE — Concern from the state superintendent of public instruction, about new federal rules requiring that recipients of some school lunch support forbid additional types of discrimination is stirring objections among some local stakeholders to his stance. 

Should Wyoming schools decide to not follow the federal rules, many millions of dollars in U.S. funding could be at stake. 

The Wyoming Education Association, along with several other organizations, are urging state leaders to stop “politicking at the cost of our kids’ wellbeing, safety and lives” when it comes to government funding for meals in schools. This responded to recent comments by the state’s superintendent, Brian Schroeder, about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent actions, which appear to date to May 5. (USDA did not comment Friday.) 

Some fear that such mandates could amount to federal overreach. This past week, Schroeder’s own department clarified that it was not seeking to reject out of hand such federal funds, although it did not support such regulation. The controversy comes in the run-up to the Aug. 16 primary election, in which Schroeder is among the five GOP candidates; there is also a Democratic contender. 

Along with the WEA, Wyoming Equality, the Equality State Policy Center and ACLU Wyoming together issued a statement this week. Saying that “every child has a constitutional right to an equitable, high-quality education,” the groups noted the federal government “did not change Title IX or create new law with the USDA’s announcement.” Schools have “a legal and moral obligation to comply with Title IX legislation, both to ensureWyoming students enjoy the same commonsense protections as other students across the nation and to protect the integrity of Wyoming’s influx of much-needed federal funds,” the groups wrote. 

Schroeder has criticized USDA for saying it would include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as a violation to Title IX as it pertains to the Food and Nutrition Service programs. TitleIX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sexdiscrimination, including based on one’s status involving pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance, including free and reduced-price lunch programs.

Schroeder has made clear that he “politically and philosophically opposes federal overreach by Washington D.C.,” Linda Finnerty, communications director for the Wyoming Department of Education, said in an email to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on Friday. 

On June 3, Schroeder in a prepared statement “denounce(d) in the strongest terms possible the Biden administration’s recent reinterpretation of the USDA’s Title IX funding to update its nondiscrimination policies and signage ‘to include prohibitions against discriminations based on gender identity and sexual orientation.’” 

“Though unsurprising, it is nonetheless both disheartening and astounding that our federal government could become so cynical as to tie the school lunches of little kids to its ever-relentless agenda of social engineering,” Schroeder said in a news release. 

On Wednesday, his comments were rolled back, with the Wyoming Department of Education saying it will “proceed with caution and prudence going forward.” While he “vigorously pursues political and legal options to oppose federal overreach,” the WDE would work to maintain the flow of federal funds to support school kids in Wyoming. 

“The superintendent recognizes that students depend on federal funds for a wide range of important services, including school lunch programs,” Finnerty wrote the WTE. “Until the state of Wyoming, through legislative appropriations, provides state funds for programs currently funded with federal dollars, the WDE must comply with the requirements of the federal government.” 

USDA funding supports school districts statewide in providing nutrition services, including the free and reduced-price lunches that many children rely on, Finnerty said. The WDE expects to receive approximately $35 million from USDA for nutrition services next school year. This funding allows the WDE to reimburse school districts for expenditures for nutrition services and funds the staffing needed to execute the program statewide. 

While some maintain that those who are not heterosexual will not face discrimination in public schools, the WEA and other groups disagree. In the U.S., more than half of LGBTQ+ students do not feel safe at school, the groups said. 

“We know that Wyoming is a politically conservative state. But, here in Wyoming, we value personal freedoms, and we value doing the right thing,” WEA President Grady Hutcherson said in an email to the WTE Thursday. 

For an LGBTQ+ student, the issue is one of their identity and life, Hutcherson said. 

“It is so much bigger and more important than a party line or pointing a finger at ‘big government.’ Red, blue or somewhere in between, I think we can all agree that our students should feel safe, respected and nurtured at school,” Hutcherson said. “Title IX protections help to ensure this and must apply toall students.” 

The WDE recognizes that Wyomingites have a “wide range of political views on numerous issues, education included,” Finnerty said. She added that her agency responded to the change when leadership “became aware of the mandate” from USDA.