CARBONDALE — As immigration, tax cuts, health care and Russian meddling have taken center stage, it has been a relatively slow year in education for the Trump administration.
Still, local educators say there has been some movement and they are preparing for more as Trump’s team gains momentum.
“I think early on there were concerns that were being voiced by people with his appointment of his new secretary of education,” Gary Kelly, superintendent at Du Quoin School District 300 said about the appointment of school choice advocate Betsy DeVos. “But really there hasn’t been a lot more movement.”
Vickie Glenn, Medicaid coordinator for Tri-County Special Education, has a theory on that.
“Nothing is going to happen because everyone is blocking everyone else,” she said, adding that she is offering to go to Washington and help people find middle ground if that’s what it takes.
There have been some headlines in education during Donald Trump’s first year in office. The most recent came in the last quarter of 2016 when the USDA announced a change to some Obama-era regulations on school lunches.
According to a USA Today article published last November, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that beginning next school year, school restrictions on sodium levels, flavored milks and requirements for whole grains will be eased up.
Kelly seemed to be neutral on the matter, saying it is his and other educator’s goals to serve children, and providing healthy lunches is part of that. He said he wouldn’t try to act as a nutritionist in commenting on the guidelines. Instead, he said said they do their best to provide meals kids would like to eat while also having to work within a tight budget.
Lorie LeQuatte, regional superintendent of schools for District 21, said even if they wanted to, they could not impose further sanctions on the districts, effectively reinstating the soon-to-be eased regulations, because they receive federal dollars for the lunch programs, which would prohibit this. She said for budget reasons, it wouldn’t be possible for many local schools to do without that money.
Last year, a loud conversation about school funding came out of an unlikely place — the health care bill. In an early draft of a House health care reform bill, there were cuts to Medicaid — something many in special education were against. This could have drastically cut back on the money available to fund the responsibilities of providing children with special needs accommodations at school.
Glenn was vocal in that discussion, and she said though that cut didn’t go through, she is always waiting for that shoe to drop. In fact, late last year, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he intended to look at ways to cut entitlement programs like Medicaid this year.
While there hasn’t been a lot of breaking news from Washington regarding education, Kelly said there is still plenty to deal with — things that were a problem not just under Obama, but other administrations as well.
One thing was the funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Kelly said the program, which requires schools to provide accommodations to students with special needs, is, by law, to be funded at 40 percent at the federal level. Instead, it is more like 15 percent.
Kelly, who is a member of the American Association of School Administrators, said through advocacy, the AASA hopes to keep chipping away at this problem.
Kelly did say there was some positive communication between the Department of Education and school leaders. Earlier this month, Kelly met in Washington with Kimberly Ritchie, assistant secretary at the DOE. He said there was little sign of an agenda from Ritchie. Instead, she just wanted to talk.
Kelly said Ritchie seemed intent on streamlining potential problem areas for the nation’s schools. However, he said long-term communication with the department will be challenged by the fact that, as with many other federal departments, there are many unfilled posts at the DOE.
“How are you able to communicate that when certain parts of the department isn’t in place?” Kelly asked.