State Board of Ed: Kids could go to private schools if families dislike public COVID policies

Families could apply for controversial taxpayer-funded scholarships to get their kids in private schools

By: - August 5, 2021 12:49 pm

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Florida’s State Board of Education plans to hold an emergency meeting Friday to allow public school students to transfer to private schools as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and threatens the start of the school year next week.

Under a rule from the education agency, families would be able to make the transfer if they believe a school district’s COVID-19 safety measures, including masks, pose a “health or educational danger.”

The families would presumably have to apply to a taxpayer-funded state scholarship program to make the switch.

At issue, for the most part, is masks.

Most school districts are mask optional as the new academic years looms, but some have tried to push a requirement for children to wear masks indoors. That has to led a major controversy with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who says that families should be able to choose to have their children wear masks.

The proposed rule would apply to what’s called a “Hope” taxpayer-funded scholarship, that has been intended for students bullied, harassed, assaulted and hurt in other ways.

So if the rule is approved, the wearing of masks will apparently be at the level of violent acts under the Hope scholarship.

In general, the taxpayer-funded state scholarships have been controversial because they siphon kids and public dollars from public schools. However, many families have benefited from these scholarships.

Andrew Spar, from the Florida Education Association said in a written statement:

“This is ridiculous. Judging from its new proposed rule, the state Department of Education sees not a public health emergency, but a mask emergency. FLDOE is using the COVID crisis as yet another opportunity to defund our neighborhood public schools and promote unaccountable, for-profit private and religious schools. Everyone’s top concern should be protecting the safety and wellbeing of Florida’s students, not playing politics with school funding.”

Step Up for Students is a scholarship funding organization which oversees Florida scholarships, such as the Hope scholarship. The Phoenix reached out to see how this proposed rule could impact private schools that may see a sudden influx of new Hope scholarship applicants if the rule is approved.

The organization did not respond to the question but provided the following written statement:

“This is a proposal from the Board of Education, not something Step Up For Students has proposed, but as always we will faithfully carry out state directives.”

Melissa Siplin, principal of a private school in Tallahassee called Anchor Academy, fears that opening up the Hope scholarship for non-bullying reason takes resources away from students who the scholarship was intended for — victims of bullying.

“You’re taking the Hope scholarship and you’re twisting the intent of it. It’s for those children who are experiencing trauma from bullying. And that’s very different from not being able to express your right to wear a mask or not wear a mask,” Siplin told the Phoenix.

“I just wouldn’t do it,” she said of the proposed rule. “Let the true intent of the scholarship be what it’s for and not try to widen its range to try to accommodate those who might dislike the (mask) policy.”

The mask issue has become a battle over executive powers compared to local control of school boards in the Florida Constitution.

Last week, DeSantis signed an executive order ensuring the rights of parents to have control over health care decisions for their children in school settings. Districts that do not comply could lose funding, according to the executive order.

But a few districts are placing mask protocols despite the executive order, due to the rising cases of COVID-19 in Florida days out from the start of the 2021-22 school year.

The Alachua County school district said it will have a mask mandate for the first two weeks of the school year, starting on Aug. 10, and will revisit the policy on Aug 17, according to the Gainesville Sun.

Jackie Johnson, communications director for the Alachua district, told the Phoenix that the district does not know how many people would take advantage of the Hope scholarship if the Board of Education decides to expand the qualifications for families that are upset with their district’s COVID policy.

“We just don’t know how many people would take them up on that offer,” Johnson told the Phoenix.

The Broward County school district currently has a mask mandate in place and will “remain in place” for the time being, according to a written statement by the district, and will discuss the matter further on Aug. 10. The South Florida county’s first day of school is Aug. 18.

Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, in the state capital, sent a letter to the governor asking for local control when it comes to mask policies, saying that the district would like to place a temporary mask requirement for kindergarten through eighth grades.

DeSantis said during a news conference in Tampa that he is not inclined to accede to efforts by some county school districts to require students to wear masks contrary to the governor’s executive order allowing parents to make that choice.

He cited a new law giving parents and legal guardians the right to bring up a child how they please and declaring that the government “may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health” of their child.

“The Legislature passed a Parents’ Bill of Rights that I signed into law about a month and a half ago, and laid down the law in Florida that parents have the fundamental right to raise their children, their health and well-being, and that that has to be respected by the state at all levels of government,” the governor said.

“So, it’s our belief that this should be a parent’s choice. I think it flows directly from that bill, and I think we’ll end up winning,” he said.

The mask conversation reignites a Florida Constitutional question about which entity has more authority over Florida’s schools — the state or local school boards.

Back in 2020, state officials were sued by the Florida Education Association on the reopening of Florida schools during the COVID pandemic.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran signed a controversial emergency order on July 6, 2020, which stated that “upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” Just like in the recent executive order, state funding was on the line for districts that did not comply.

But the FEA lawsuit claimed that the 2020 emergency order overstepped the local authority of districts to operate schools. The Florida Constitution promises students the right to a “safe, secure” education, and  “the school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.”

Eventually, the FEA voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit, and the constitutional quandary was never fully answered: if there is a conflict between local school boards and state officials on how schools should operate during a pandemic, which entity has the ultimate authority?

Florida Phoenix deputy editor Michael Moline contributed to this report.

Clarification: Families who apply for the Hope scholarship could transfer their children to a private school, a public school within the same district or another district if there’s room.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.