TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday rebuked a proposal to take away $200 million from a dozen school districts that implemented strict mask mandates last year in defiance of his administration.
Instead, he urged the Republican-led Legislature to give parents the power to sue their local schools over COVID-19 protocols, such as masking, a move that could prove more costly for districts that could be stuck with large legal bills.
“Rather than take money that may penalize a teacher or student because of the actions of some union-controlled school board members, my view would be — let’s not do that,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Marianna. “But what you could do is say, any parent whose kid was illegally forced masked this year in Florida, in any of those districts, they should have the right to sue if their kids have any negative effects of it.”
DeSantis was taking aim at a proposal named “Putting Parents First” that is tucked in the House’s 2022-23 budget proposal. It would have impacted the 12 districts — including Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties — that imposed strict mask mandates. Some of those districts and a group of parents wrangled with the state over the issue in court.
In the fall, the Florida Department of Education docked the pay of school board members that imposed strict masking rules the governor did not want in place.
Now, state Rep. Randy Fine of Palm Bay, who chairs the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, has proposed taking away $200 million from the districts. He said the money would represent the salaries of more than 1,600 district-level officials that make over $100,000 a year. Some of those positions would include department directors and other decision-makers in the school systems. The funds would be redistributed to the 55 other districts that followed the state’s masking edict as a “reward,” Fine said.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls’ spokesperson, Jenna Sarkissian, said the House proposal “recognizes that these local decision-makers are the ones responsible for choosing to flaunt the law — not the students — and therefore it is the school administrator’s salary that is targeted and redirected to law-abiding districts.”
When asked about the governor’s comments on Friday, Fine said he agrees with the governor that there should be financial consequences for “rogue districts.”
“He just proposed another way of doing it,” he said in an interview. “The method he is proposing could be far more than $200 million.”
DeSantis focused on education policies
The Senate has not embraced the idea. On Thursday, Senate President Wilton Simpson told reporters he has not delved into the specifics of the plan “at all,” though he said there should be “consequences” for anyone who does not follow state rules and laws.
DeSantis’ remarks are an example of how the Republican governor is using his influence to shape the state’s education budget, which is one of the largest portions of a $100 billion state budget lawmakers are starting to craft.
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As DeSantis runs for re-election, education has become a key component of the governor’s policy agenda.
DeSantis also asked lawmakers to take action against private schools that accept vouchers and require students to wear masks, a request that appears to be at odds with DeSantis’ previous stance on state edicts for private schools.
DeSantis did not name specific private schools but singled our “parochial schools” that continue to have masking policies.
“I think the Legislature should say, you know what, if a parent is utilizing our Step Up for Students, they should be protected from having their kids force masked just the same as public school parents,” he said. “It is wrong to tell a parent who’s made this decision for academic reasons that what are they supposed to do? Try to find another school because of the policy?”
Step Up for Students is the main organization that hands out vouchers to eligible Florida families.
Rules for public schools vs. private schools
The push to impose state masking rules on private schools would mark a shift in how Republican lawmakers and DeSantis have dealt with the matter.
In November, Republican lawmakers crafted and approved legislation that omitted private schools from statewide masking instructions.
At the time, state Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said the reason was to protect families from government intrusion into their decisions.
DeSantis signed the bill into law and did not request private schools be included in the bill as it was being vetted by the Legislature. Some educators pointed out the double standard.
“Help me understand this!” former Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho tweeted Jan. 3. “Students in Florida can use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools that impose student mask mandates, when public schools, the bedrock of democracy in America, are legislatively forbidden from doing so.”
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment on the governor’s stance.
It remains to be seen how the governor’s request will play out in the Republican-led Legislature, where GOP lawmakers have resisted imposing state requirements on private schools over the years.
Fine said he hopes the governor’s comments are enough to end mask mandates in private schools.
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