Student wearing mask. Credit: Stock photo/Getty Images.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is urging the U.S. Department of Education to prevent state lawmakers from financially penalizing certain local school districts — to the tune of $200 million — that placed mask mandates on students earlier this school year.
In a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Fried asked that the U.S. Department of Education “take all necessary action, including litigation if warranted, to prevent the State of Florida from defunding school districts that implemented mask mandates at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
At issue is a Florida House budget proposal that would penalize certain school districts, while rewarding others. The situation could potentially rehash legal questions from last fall over mask mandates, involving district, state, and federal education agencies.
Fried urges Cardona to “use (his) Department’s authority to investigate this nefarious and disgraceful act.”
She added in the letter: “Today, Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida House of Representatives agreed on a proposal to once again decrease funding from the twelve school districts that took action to keep their students and staff safe in defiance of the statewide ban on mask requirements — a $200M punishment.”
In early February, the House proposed its annual state budget, and state Rep. Randy Fine — chair of the House PreK-12 appropriations committee — recommended that lawmakers financially penalize 12 school districts that implemented strict mask mandates at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which state education officials believed broke Florida law.
The proposal would withhold a total of $200 million dollars from these districts and distribute those funds to Florida’s other 55 school districts. The initiative in the House budget is described as “Putting Parents First Adjustment.”
The 12 districts that would be penalized are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota, Volusia. Rep. Fine represents part of Brevard in the Legislature.
“These cuts amount to nothing more than a disgraceful act of political retaliation by Gov. DeSantis,” Fried continued. Fried is currently campaigning to be the Democratic nominee in the 2022 gubernatorial election. DeSantis is expected to be the nominee for Republicans.
Fried has been involved in COVID-19 matters for months now, including relaying COVID data to the public when state health officials began to include less information in COVID reports.
The Senate does not have a similar proposal in its budget. Usually, both chambers would need to approve the $200 million to be able to include the amount in the final state budget for 2022-23.
The issue reignites a battle from the fall, where a handful of school districts sought to protect students and staff from the surging COVID-19 pandemic.
Citing the delta-variant surge earlier in the school year, some school districts wanted to require masks for children, with very few exceptions, but state education official determined it should be up to the parents to decide.
The Florida Board of Education financially penalized those school districts for their strict mask mandates that did not allow parents to decide whether their students wear masks at schools. The state docked the monthly salaries of school boards that approved of the strict mask mandates and the U.S. Education Department got involved. Those funds were later returned.
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