DeSantis nixes budget punishment for mask mandate schools
DeSantis nixes budget punishment for mask mandate schools

Andrew Atterbury

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday called off a plan crafted by Republican state lawmakers aiming to punish local school districts that broke from his administration by requiring students to wear masks in schools during the fall.

In a letter accompanying his wide slate of vetoes, the Republican governor directed his Education Department not to penalize schools for decisions made by district leaders, a decision that opens up a $200 million pot of “school recognition” dollars to all school districts in the state.

Under the budget wrinkle passed by the state Legislature, the pool of funding would have been available to some 55 districts in 2022-23 yet not the 12 counties that propped up student masking requirements regardless of how their schools perform.

“I direct the Department of Education to implement the Florida School Recognition Program consistent with this reading of the language, which is to reward eligible schools for their achievements, as districts' actions have no bearing on a school's eligibility,” DeSantis wrote.

The idea to discipline school leaders and boards that bucked the state with mask mandates first emerged in the Florida House as a “Putting Parents First” adjustment in the budget that would have plucked $200 million from school districts that had masking requirements, including Broward, Leon and Miami Dade counties.

Introduced by state Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay), the House’s K-12 education budget chief, the proposal proved to be a controversial spending item that was condemned by Democrats who argued it would spur massive cuts to school administrations targeted in the original budget language.

The plan evolved during session as the Legislature ultimately agreed to spend $200 million on the school recognition fund and carve out new rules blocking mask mandate schools from accessing the money.

In the past, similar school recognition dollars have been available to campuses that either score an “A” grade from the state or show improvement over the previous year. This money, by law, can be spent on bonuses for teachers, education materials or even hiring temporary staffers to aid instruction.

The decision by DeSantis to nix the idea of cutting out the counties with masking rules appeared to come as a surprise to lawmakers. Fine, for one, said that he was reviewing the governor’s message.

“I am somewhat befuddled by the letter,” Fine wrote in a text message. “The language in the bill was explicit and clear.”

DeSantis backed the House’s original idea to punish the school districts that passed masking rules but on Thursday expressed concerns that schools, not district leaders, would feel the brunt of the pain under the plan passed by the Legislature. The Republican governor in his letter reiterated his support for “holding administrators accountable, as long as classrooms and schools were not impacted.”

“My approval and your subsequent implementation of this funding must rely on the plain language that districts' actions do not impact schools' eligibility,” DeSantis wrote.

Schools, under the plan passed by lawmakers in March, would have been eligible for recognition dollars if they meet performance standards “and were not found in violation of emergency rules promulgated by the Department of Health related to face covering mandates during the 2020-2021 or 2021-2022 school year.”

Now, schools will be eligible for the funding regardless of their local district’s stance on masking students.