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Feds move to block Florida from penalizing schools over masks, COVID grants

The state pulled hundreds of thousands of dollars from districts that imposed mandates.
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, center, fired back at the U.S. Department of Education, saying it was "mistaken" in deeming Florida's actions unlawful.
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, center, fired back at the U.S. Department of Education, saying it was "mistaken" in deeming Florida's actions unlawful. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 28
Updated Oct. 29

TALLAHASSEE — After the Florida Department of Education withheld funds from two school districts amid an ongoing mask mandate fight, President Joe Biden’s administration this week filed a complaint asking an administrative judge to block Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration’s actions.

The complaint, filed Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education with the agency’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, marks the latest clash between the Biden administration and Florida over the state’s COVID-19 response.

The action comes three days after the federal agency sent a letter to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, warning that there would be repercussions if Florida moved to withhold state funds to counteract federal grant awards given to two districts, Broward and Alachua, that implemented a mask mandate.

Despite the warning, the Florida Department of Education on Wednesday began withholding funds in an amount equal to the federal grant awards that Broward and Alachua received from the Biden administration.

So far, the state has pulled $526,197 from Broward County Public Schools and $192,000 from Alachua County Public Schools as it targets the salaries of school board members who voted for a mask mandate and tried to counteract the federal grant awards that were meant to offset the state penalties.

“The Florida Department of Education has unlawfully — and explicitly — reduced the amount of state aid provided to Florida school districts based on their receipt of federal funds,” according to the federal complaint.

The complaint says the state had cutback on state aid to districts “as part of a broader effort to deter those districts from implementing practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

“But whatever its motivation, the reduction of state aid based on the receipt of the federal funds is a plain violation of section 8522 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965,” the complaint says.

Specifically, the section cited in the complaint bars a state from taking into consideration federal payments when determining the amount of aid a district should get.

“We believe Florida’s actions have violated federal law by reducing state funds on the receipt of federal funds,” a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Education said in a statement, which noted, the complaint was filed after federal officials made “repeated requests to work together and protect students, educators and school communities.”

Corcoran, however, says the federal agency is “mistaken” when it says the state has acted unlawfully and, instead, says federal officials are the ones who are who have engaged in “unlawful efforts to encourage non-compliance with Florida law” through its federal grant awards to districts.

He argues the state actions do not violate federal requirements because the state funds withheld from districts are not state aid, rather “penalties that may be necessary to enforce state law.”

Corcoran further argues that the withholding of funds should not be considered a reduction in funding because the funds will be distributed once the districts comply with state COVID-19 rules.

Corcoran’s arguments, outlined in an Oct. 13 letter to Ian Rosenblum, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs at the U.S. Department of Education, offer a glimpse of how the state may try to argue the case before an administrative law judge.

After the federal complaint was filed Thursday, Florida Department of Education spokesman Jared Ochs said the federal agency has yet to respond to the arguments outlined in the Oct. 13 letter.

“We will continue forward fighting for Florida students’ access to a free and public education,” Ochs said.

How it started

The long-running battle in Florida began when several school districts began imposing strict mask mandates as students prepared to return to in-person classes in the fall.

In response, DeSantis issued an executive order in July that prompted his administration to bar mask mandates in schools and left it up to parents to decide if their children should wear a face covering.

In September, his administration issued a new rule that doubled down on parents being the ones to decide whether children wear masks at school and whether they should be quarantined after being exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

By that time, school districts, parents and the state had been tangled up in court fights over the state’s masking restrictions.

The state had also begun to withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries of school board members who had voted for a school mask mandate, a move that was approved by the State Board of Education and pushed by Corcoran.

And the Biden administration jumped into the fight.

In September, the U.S. Department of Education announced the creation of a new grant program, Project SAFE, designed to cover any fines or withholding of funds that school districts face because of their COVID-19 rules, including mask requirements.

Broward and Alachua were the first districts to apply successfully for a federal grant award under the program. The districts are among eight — including Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties — that are facing state cutbacks as a result of their masking policies.

When the federal grant program came into the picture, the State Board of Education early in October authorized the Florida Department of Education to withhold funds in an amount equal to the federal aid.

At the time, Corcoran said the federal grants were encouraging districts to violate Florida law and that Floridians should by “offended” by the Biden administration’s use of federal dollars.

When the Biden administration threatened to take action against the state if it followed through with its threat to pull federal grant award from districts, the Florida Department of Education did not back down.

It said the federal agency had sent a “harassing and legally hollow letter,” and added the state agency would continue “forward, legally, as we have this entire time.”

Two days later, the state withheld funds from Broward and Alachua.

What happens now?

The U.S. Department of Education is asking an administrative judge to find that the state has violated federal requirements by withholding federal aid.

The federal agency also wants a judge to block the Florida Department of Education from withholding funds from Alachua and Broward and any future reduction to any other district, as it relates to Project SAFE.