Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, is endorsing a contentious proposal to take $200 million in education funds away from counties that disobeyed his executive order banning mask requirements in schools last year.
DeSantis, who is largely seen as Donald Trump’s Republican heir apparent, intends to deliver the funds to predominantly Republican counties that backed him.
The idea was included in a budget package voted by the Republican-controlled Florida house on Wednesday, which some analysts feel is virtually probably unlawful.
Teachers’ unions, school districts, and education activists have slammed it, claiming that the sanctions would slash even more resources from classrooms in a state that is already in the bottom four nationally in terms of per-student expenditure.
“This is retaliation by legislators and the governor,” said Jabari Hosey, president of the advocacy group Families for Safe Schools and a parent of school-age children in Brevard county.
“We are down over 150 teachers in Brevard right now. We need more social workers, there’s a performance gap because of Covid that is still present in our community. We need more funds, more opportunities, more instructors.”
“To retaliate and to attack the public school system they are supposed to be promoting is very sad. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.”
School districts in the 12 Florida counties that adopted mask regulations last summer in violation of DeSantis’ executive order will forfeit money according on their size, according to a plan by Republican state lawmaker Randy Fine.
Hosey’s children attend Brevard, which Fine represents, would forego $4.5 million.
South Florida, which votes predominantly Democratic in local, state, and national elections, would provide two-thirds of the funds. Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth-largest school system with 357,000 children, would lose $72 million; Broward, the sixth-largest district with 270,000 students, would lose around $32 million; and Palm Beach, the tenth-largest district with 193,000 students, would lose $28 million.
All but three of the remaining counties, Alachua, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Orange, Sarasota, and Volusia, endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election in Florida, which Donald Trump won.
“Following the law is not optional. These school districts broke the law, and they were broken for nothing,” a visibly angry Fine told fellow legislators on Wednesday.
During a tumultuous session of the Florida House Appropriations Committee last week, he insisted that the state would not “reduce funding for any direct educational service or resource that impacts the education of kindergarten through grade 12 students” and that the state would cut the salaries of administrators earning more than $100,000.
He did admit, though, that the strategy was designed to punish counties that failed to follow the governor’s orders. “It is intended to reward the 55 school districts, the overwhelming majority of which followed our state law and respected the rights of parents over the past year,” he said.
DeSantis, a vocal opponent of mask and vaccination regulations, first stated his opposition to the measure.“My view would be let’s not do that,” he said in an appearance in Jacksonville on Friday, telling reporters he instead preferred to let parents sue school districts individually if they felt children were harmed by “forced masking”.
However, on Tuesday, the governor had reversed his position, backing Fine’s plan and parents’ ability to bring lawsuits. “They should get compensated for academic, social and emotional problems caused by these policies,” he said in a tweet.
The $105 billion budget, which includes a transfer of education dollars, has cleared the Florida house and now must be reconciled in the state senate, which also has a Republican majority.
If DeSantis signs it into law, it will almost certainly face legal challenges. Hosey’s group points out that after a lengthy legal battle with districts who insisted on following masking advice from the Biden administration and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every Florida county with mandates dropped them as soon as the original executive order became law in November (CDC).
Furthermore, they claim that the fines are aimed at the incomes of school district administrators who just administered the mask rules, rather than the salaries of school board members who enacted them.
In a statement to the Guardian, John J Sullivan, director of legislative relations for Broward County Public Schools, said that the withholding of monies will have a direct impact on pupils.
“We are disappointed in the governor’s reversal. We hope the senate will not agree to penalize administrators who have worked tirelessly to meet the unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic, always focused on the health and safety of students and teachers,” he said.
“This penalty would have a negative impact on the services the district is able to provide to our students.”
Administrators in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have issued similar statements, and educators’ unions have condemned the plan.
“We have 165 vacancies and a lot of it has to do with the salaries we can offer to teachers. So that money would mean a lot to our school district and it’s a shame that someone would do that. It’s totally punitive and politically motivated,” Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange county classroom teachers association told WMFE radio.