FL education officials appear to defy feds’ cease and desist complaint regarding state funds

Federal government has warned Commissioner Corcoran that the state could be breaking the law

By: - November 12, 2021 5:44 pm

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran Credit: screenshot from the Florida Channel.

Despite warnings from federal education officials, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has been defiant against the U.S. Department of Education’s warnings that Florida could be breaking federal law.

But Florida education officials believe that the feds are the problem.

The State Board of Education has called a meeting Tuesday “to discuss the federal government’s overreach and unlawful behavior,” said Cassie Palelis, press secretary for the Department of Education.

At issue is the withholding of state funds equal to federal grants intended to help two Florida school boards — Alachua and Broward — cover financial penalties. Those penalties targeted the salaries of school boards because of strict mask mandates that were against the DeSantis administration.

The two boards got federal grants to cover docked pay. But the state withheld additional money — the crux of the U.S. Department of Education’s concerns.

The Florida meeting notice follows a cease and desist complaint by the federal government on Oct 28. The document asks the federal Office of Administrative Law Judges to order state education officials to terminate “the suspension of funds…related to Project SAFE (a federal grant or local boards); and to cease and desist any future reductions in state aid to these LEAs (local education agencies)…”

An administrative hearing for this cease and desist complaint will be held on Dec. 10, according to the document.

Project SAFE is a new grant program from the Biden administration to backfill financial penalties placed on to local school boards by state officials for implementing COVID mitigation strategies recommended by the CDC, such as requiring universal masking in schools.

“The Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) has unlawfully—and explicitly—reduced the amount of state aid provided to Florida school districts based on their receipt of federal funds,” the complaint reads. “It has done so as part of a broader effort to deter those districts from implementing practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

The issue stems from an ongoing political and legal battle to determine who decides if students wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic: local school boards, state education officials or parents.

The DeSantis administration says that parents should decide, not school boards.

But Corcoran claims that the (federal SAFE) grant funds were awarded illegally in the first place. In a letter sent to federal education officials on Oct. 13, Corcoran said that: “The real legal problem here is that the U.S. Department of Education…has decided to interfere unlawfully with Florida’s enforcement of its education policies.”

Corcoran cited a section of federal law regarding prohibitions on federal funds. The Oct. 13 letter reads:

“Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s curriculum, program of instruction, or allocation of State or local resources, or mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this chapter.”

Corcoran claims that the Project SAFE grant appears to violate federal law, because the feds have attempted to assert control over the allocation of state resources through this grant program, according to the Oct. 13 letter.

He also claims that even if the funds under Project SAFE are legal, the Board of Education’s penalties do not reduce allocation to these districts because “When the districts can demonstrate compliance with state law, those funds will be disbursed,” he said in the Oct. 13  letter.

Recently, eight Florida school districts were sanctioned by state education officials for implementing strict mask mandates that the state Board of Education say conflict with state law and an emergency rule by the Florida Department of Health. Those districts are: Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Orange, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.

Since then, most of the eight districts sanctioned by the state Board of Education have dropped the strict mask mandates, with many citing lower COVID transmission for changing their policies.

In fact, 66 out of Florida’s 67 school districts allow parents to decide whether their children can wear masks at school.

And as of Friday, the Alachua County School District, will end its strict mask mandate and allow parents to opt their child out through a form, according to the district website. Alachua was one of the first districts to clash with state education officials over mask mandates. Broward will also end their strict mask mandate on Nov. 20.

Those two districts, Alachua and Broward, were the first to be sanctioned by the state for strict mask policies and thus applied to Project SAFE. The Biden administration awarded grant funds to these two districts, so the Board of Education withheld additional funds equal to the Project SAFE grant awards.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Education have warned Corcoran that Florida could be breaking federal law by withholding state funds equal to Project SAFE grants under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Phoenix reached out to both the federal and state education departments to see if there has been any movement the cease and desist letter since then, and is awaiting response.

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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.