Florida Gov. DeSantis sides with House in penalizing school districts that required masks

'Most students didn’t want to wear masks in the first place!' DeSantis tweeted

John Kennedy

TALLAHASSEE – After earlier downplaying the idea, Gov. Ron DeSantis now has endorsed a House proposal to cut $200 million in education money from a dozen Florida counties that defied him by issuing mask requirements last year for students and school staff.

DeSantis’ support emerged shortly before the House moved ahead Tuesday with preliminary approval to the school reduction as part of its $105.3 billion state budget for next year. 

The Republican governor tweeted his backing of the reduction, calling it aimed at “union-controlled politicians and bureaucrats.”

It would hit big counties hardest — including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — but also slash dollars to smaller counties including Leon, Alachua and Volusia, which mandated masks during last year’s spike in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most students didn’t want to wear masks in the first place!” DeSantis tweeted.

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DeSantis last week initially distanced himself from the proposal by House education budget-writer Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, saying he feared it could penalize teachers or students.

Fine’s approach, however, is intended to cut available funds in the 12 counties that would pay the salaries of administrators making more than $100,000 annually. When Fine assured the governor of his target, he got on board, according to DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw.

With DeSantis’ backing, the House position on reducing dollars going to defiant counties gains strength. The Senate hadn’t included the move in its state budget proposal and Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who chairs the Florida Republican Party, pushed back last week, saying, “We need every dollar.”

But resistance could wane, now that DeSantis has given a thumbs-up. The House reductions include:

  • $2 million for Alachua County.
  • $4.5 million for Brevard.
  • $32.4 million for Broward.
  • $71.9 million for Miami-Dade.
  • $10.6 million for Duval.
  • $14.2 million for Hillsborough.
  • $1.3 million for Indian River.
  • $2.7 million for Leon.
  • $16.5 million for Orange.
  • $28.4 million for Palm Beach.
  • $12.1 million for Sarasota.
  • $3.2 million for Volusia.

When was it law?

The $200 million would be redistributed to the state’s 55 other counties, which Fine said “followed the law.”

Rep. Randy Fine listens to a speaker during a House Tourism, Infrastructure & Energy Subcommittee meeting Tuesday morning, Feb. 15, 2022.

“It’s not my intention to punish anyone,” Fine told the House Tuesday. “It’s to hold them accountable.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, challenged Fine’s interpretation. She noted that DeSantis last summer issued an executive order allowing only parents to decide whether their children would wear masks in schools.

But that mask standard wasn’t cemented into state law until November, during a special legislative session. A measure signed then by DeSantis prohibits vaccine and mask requirements in schools.

Fine suggested Eskamani was quibbling: “Just because we hadn’t passed something doesn’t mean it’s not a law and it doesn’t mean it’s not illegal,” he said.

DeSantis, though, is not ready to stop with the financial penalty. Last week, he put in play the idea that lawmakers should expand the legal authority of parents to sue any of these 12 districts if a child has any “negative effects” of masks.

Rep. Anna Eskamani speaks on the House floor in this Feb. 20, 2020 file photo.

Florida governor wants more

“The governor still supports the private right of action to protect parents whose kids were harmed by forced masking in violation of Florida law,” Pushaw said Tuesday.

DeSantis during an appearance in Marianna last week also urged lawmakers to confront private schools which accept taxpayer-funded voucher students, saying they should also be forced to not require masks, leaving it to parents to decide.

Florida’s Republican-led Legislature has shielded such voucher schools from being subject to statewide testing requirements, teacher standards and other measures that apply in public schools.

But DeSantis wants state lawmakers to step into regulating these private classrooms, saying “many of the parochial schools ... are still clinging to the forced-masking of these students,” saying the state’s parent-only mask authority should apply.

DeSantis specifically cited the more than 100,000 students who participate through the Step Up For Students program that has children in almost 2,000 private schools in Florida. He said these “parents should be protected.”

The governor’s support for the $200 million reduction to the 12 counties brought a swift reaction from one of his Democratic rivals for governor, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

She called the move a “disgraceful act of political retaliation” and asked the U.S. Education Department under President Biden to step in and investigate whether it was allowed under federal law.

Last fall, the department reimbursed school board members in Alachua and Broward counties who were docked pay by the state because of mask mandates, a penalty the DeSantis administration was looking to apply to all the defiant counties.

In December, paychecks withheld from school board members were eventually returned by the Florida Education Department.

Previous coverage:Benefits also withheld for school board members who defied state emergency mask rule

More:Biden Administration warns Florida over financial sanctions against school boards with mask mandates

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport