Forbes | By Alison Durkee | November 16, 2021
The Florida state board of education will restore funding to school districts that had defied the state by imposing mask mandates now that their mask orders have been lifted, the board voted Tuesday—but the state still may take action against the Biden administration if it moves forward with its legal complaint against Florida for withholding the schools’ funds.
- Alachua and Broward counties will have school funding restored to them after both districts said they would allow parents to opt out of the school’s mask mandates as the state requires, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and the agency’s legal counsel said at a board meeting Tuesday.
- The counties were two of 10 Florida school districts that at least temporarily imposed strict mask mandates despite the state prohibiting them from doing so, but were the only ones that ultimately had funding withheld—$194,720 for Alachua County and $526,197 for Broward.
- In addition to having an amount of funding withheld equivalent to their school board members’ salaries, the state also docked an amount equal to what the schools received in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Education, which were designed to make up for the schools’ lost state funding.
- The Biden administration filed a cease and desist order against the Florida Department of Education over the withheld funding for the grants, and Corcoran and attorney Steven Engle said they would “vigorously” defend themselves in court against the complaint if the federal government doesn’t drop it.
- If the U.S. Department of Education moves forward with the complaint, Corcoran and Engle suggested they may countersue the Biden administration, alleging the Project SAFE grants given to Alachua and Broward counties violate federal laws that block the agency from determining how states allocate their funds.
- The U.S. Department of Education has not yet responded to a request for comment on its plans regarding the legal complaint.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Biden administration’s cease and desist order is expected to be heard by an administrative judge at a December 10 hearing if the federal government does not drop the case, Engle said Tuesday. Corcoran also noted that while the agency is restoring funding to the school districts now that they’ve said they would comply with the state policy, it will be “monitoring” their compliance and “will not hesitate to take enforcement action if necessary.”
The U.S. Department of Education has previously criticized Florida’s decision to withhold funding over the Project SAFE grants, saying in a statement it was “deeply troubling” and an “abdication of [the state’s] duty” to “keep our children safe.” The agency alleges in its cease and desist order that by holding the funds back, Florida violated the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which blocks states from taking federal funds into account when they’re determining how much state aid schools receive.
Florida is one of 10 states to impose policies that blocked or severely restricted schools from imposing mask mandates, but the state’s policy has been among the most controversial as Florida’s Covid-19 cases surged at the start of the school year. The Florida Board of Education and Gov. Ron DeSantis have held parents should be able to determine whether or not their child should wear a mask in school, despite widespread opposition and multiple lawsuits challenging the policy. One lower court judge did succeed in briefly blocking the law, but an appeals court then put the law back in effect, and courts have so far sided with Florida in other cases against the mask mandate ban. In addition to implementing the Project SAFE grants and filing its legal complaint against Florida, the U.S. Department of Education has also launched civil rights investigations into Florida and other states banning school mask mandates to determine whether the policies violate the rights of students with disabilities.