Ron DeSantis is a governor uninterested in actually governing, a lawyer with little respect for the law, an anti-elitist with an Ivy League education and a hypocrite unbothered by inconsistency. Populist politics, not public policy, is his long suit.
So it is not surprising that he has made a monumental mess of masking in public schools. When it became apparent that many of Florida’s 67 local school boards intended to require students, teachers and staff to wear masks based on the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, plus the clear consensus of health care professionals generally, DeSantis did not see a serious public health issue. He saw an irresistible opportunity to pander to the MAGA peanut gallery on a grand scale.
Through a combination of executive orders and emergency rule making by a docile Department of Health and a spineless state Board of Education, DeSantis forbade mandatory masking in public schools and made private school vouchers available to the parents of every child in any school district with a mask mandate. This cowed almost all of the recalcitrant district school board members and superintendents, who tried to save face and have it both ways by requiring masks but allowing parental opt-outs.
Almost all. The Broward and Alachua school boards spit the bit, defying DeSantis and digging in to fight for the safety of those for whose safety they are responsible. They adopted mask mandates without parental opt-outs.
And things have gone downhill for DeSantis from there. He and whoever gives him what passes for advice in such matters realized the voucher threat was not going to get the job done. Not enough parents in Broward and Alachua were going to take advantage of the vouchers to make a difference, as evidenced by the low percentages of parents who have opted out of the quasi-mask mandates in the compliant school districts.
The next threat was to cut state education funding to Broward and Alachua, which would be disastrous. But because it would be disastrous, the threat was not credible, and it was quickly abandoned.
Then there were going to be “surgical” cuts in state funding, specifically, the salaries of the defiant school board members and superintendents. Nope. The state doesn’t pay those salaries, a fact known to my barber, if not to DeSantis and his brain trust.
The most recent fallback position in DeSantis’ pell-mell retreat from the high water mark of his arrogance is reducing state funding to the rebellious districts by an amount equal to the salaries of the school board members and superintendents. This would not, of course, actually cost the individuals in question a dime, and the relatively small reductions — three-tenths of one percent of the school district budget in Broward and six-tenths of one percent in Alachua — could easily be backfilled with funds from budget reserves.
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And even that might be unnecessary, because the Biden administration, sensing a high-profile opportunity to promote masking and ding DeSantis in the bargain, weighed in and said it is prepared to make up any reduction in state funding to the districts with federal dollars. Whether that proves possible is not as important as the statement it makes.
It is too early to know how this goat rope will end. The Board of Education in a second emergency meeting grilled the representatives of the Broward and Alachua schools districts for three hours like the Inquisition going after Galileo, and in the end, after all of the huffing and puffing, did nothing more than resolve to do an unspecified something in the future, after further investigation of the obvious: Broward and Alachua ain’t budging. And now the school districts in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties have joined the rebellion, so things are going to get worse before they get better.
It is not too early, however, to make two observations. First, DeSantis has proven yet again that, his posh degrees notwithstanding, he’s not always particularly smart. Almost 70 percent of Americans favor mandatory masking in schools, and his masking antics cannot have gained him more than five votes he didn’t already have while incensing and invigorating his opponents.
Second, win, lose or draw, the stands made by these stout-hearted school board members and superintendents are bracing reminders of the potent power of principles and true grit in a confrontation with an authoritarian bully. Good on them.
Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.