The state of Florida this week withheld nearly $700,000 in funding from two school districts as part of an escalating feud led by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over school mask requirements.
The state had previously financially penalized the Alachua and Broward school boards by docking their salaries for issuing school mask requirements, which DeSantis has worked to ban. In response to the financial penalties, the Biden administration last month awarded the counties federal funding to compensate for losses. Alachua County was awarded $147,719 and Broward County Public Schools received $420,957 in federal grants under the US Department of Education (USDOE) Project Safe grant.
But this week, the Florida Department of Education took things a step further. For this month’s budgets, the Sunshine State docked the school boards’ salaries and overall school funding in amounts equal to the federal grants, effectively canceling out the counties’ federal aid.
The Florida Department of Education deducted $164,505 from Alachua’s October budget allocation and a total of $526,197 from Broward’s, according to Politico.
Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon told the outlet that the district was hit hard financially because it had not yet accessed the federal grant money.
“I am appalled that the state would penalize the district by pulling funding we have not even received,” Simon said. She added that the deduction would impact support for students.
The funding cut is also in direct defiance of the federal government. Just Monday, the USDOE sent a letter to the Florida DOE stating that, if the department went through with the funding cut, it would be “failing to comply with federal requirements,” particularly of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. A section of the act says that states are not to take federal funding into account when setting its own aid to schools. Florida DOE spokesperson Jared Ochs responded Wednesday by calling the USDOE’s letter “harassing and legally hollow.”
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ executive order barring school districts from setting mask requirements remains in legal limbo. In August, a Leon County Circuit judge struck down the order, saying it violates the state constitution. DeSantis appealed, and the 1st District Court of Appeal allowed the governor’s order to remain in effect until the case is considered.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorse universal masking in schools to prevent transmission of the pandemic coronavirus and to protect children, teachers, and staff. Studies published last month by the CDC concluded that schools with universal masking were 3.5 times less likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak. Additionally, masked school districts saw 50 percent lower rates of child COVID-19 in their counties than schools without mask requirements.