To dodge new federal gender identity mandates in schools, Wyoming may need to fund its own school lunch programs, but legislators disagree on how quickly that can be accomplished.
“Our financial situation is a long way from being stable right now,” said Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee. “I think we have to be very cautious on anything that we do that costs us more money or puts an extra burden on the financial situation of the state.”
Paxton told Cowboy State Daily on Monday that he didn’t think Wyoming could budget to pay for its own school lunch program by the next legislative session, which begins January 2023, but the shift could be possible eventually.
“There’s certainly a cost involved in it, but I would not say it’s completely out of the picture,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 5 announced that all state and local agencies funded by its sub-agency, Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), would be required to update their non-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity among the protected groups.
The Wyoming Department of Education receives about $90 million a year in FNS funds to pay for school lunches.
The mandate could require Wyoming schools to provide transgender bathroom accommodations, as it comes in the wake of court decisions that requiring bathroom use according to biological sex is a form of gender identity discrimination.
Paxton said state lawmakers already “have made a few inroads” toward having the state pay for school lunches, such as accommodating local ranchers’ food donations to schools.
These efforts have been due to what Paxton called long-lasting controversy around the school lunch program predating gender identity debates. For example, he said, school lunches were considered more nutritious before the federal government took over the program.
But growing problems for public schools, such as a statewide teacher and school staff shortage, also demand the state’s financial support now, Paxton said.
“We need to see how this whole process develops across the nation before we make too many moves,” he said.
Once a main source of school funding, coal no longer supports Wyoming schools, and other natural resources used for to pay for K-12 schools have been hampered by federal mineral leasing and permitting restrictions.
Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder on June 8 issued a statement saying the state would have to comply with the USDA’s mandate temporarily until the Legislature could fund the school lunch programs itself. He urged citizens to communicate with legislators on the subject.
Bathroom Rules a Local Issue
In his experience with Wyoming schools, bullying and discrimination aren’t tolerated against any identity group, said Paxton. But maintaining binary bathrooms and athletics teams, he said, is “a totally different issue (from bullying) in my mind.”
Decisions on bathroom accommodations, he said, should be made by local school boards in their own respective districts, not at the federal or even the state level.
Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, who is a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee, countered Paxton’s approach, saying he thinks it’s feasible for Wyoming to take on its own school lunch funding, but it won’t be easy.
About 12% of Wyoming school operation revenues last year were from federal sources.
Neiman said that, as the least populous state in the Union, “I think we can figure out how to make sure our kids get fed and cared for, and I think people in the state of Wyoming would support that.”
He said he’s willing to pursue the shift to state funding for school lunches in the upcoming legislative session and would involve Wyoming Treasurer Curt Meier in discussions to produce a bill to that end.
There may be some hard budget decisions to make, said Neiman, pointing as an example to Utah’s school system, which charges the public to attend many extra-curricular events.
“We need to stop and have a very serious conversation about the things we need versus the things we want,” he said. “It’s going to take some desire on the part of the people.”
Neiman also strongly condemned the USDA for using school lunch funding for what he described as “social engineering.”
“I believe that’s wrong on every level. That’s not their job,” he said.
Not Ready To Dump Fed Food
It’s better to take the lunch funds now and argue about them later, according to Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, who is also a member of the Education Committee.
Brown, like Paxton, said he believes that dumping the food programs now would be premature, and could “hold our kids and their stomachs hostage.”
The Legislature as a whole isn’t likely to shift all school-lunch funding responsibility to the state in the next session, said Brown, because the state has “horrible budget outlooks.”
Still, he added, there could be some lively debate over it.
A state lawsuit challenging the USDA’s new rules seems more likely than a state funding model shift, said Brown. However, he noted that’s a discussion for Gov. Mark Gordon and Schroeder to have.
“I do think it’s worth the battle, personally,” said Brown.
The legislator said the federal government has “overstepped its bounds” and seems to be cloaking a “social justice issue” in school lunch funding.
“It’s abhorrent to me,” said Brown.
But despite that, he added, “I will not stand back and watch our kids go to school hungry.”
No Weigh-In From Committee Dems
Rep. Cathy Connolly and Sen. Chris Rothfuss, both of Laramie and both Democratic delegates to the Education Committee, did not respond immediately to voicemails requesting comment.