GOP lawmaker aims to strip state funding from school districts that defied Gov. DeSantis on masks
'It’s about holding people accountable,' the lawmaker behind the move said
TALLAHASSEE – The Florida House would strip $200 million from a dozen counties where school boards defied Gov. Ron DeSantis by requiring students and staff to wear masks – another punishing strike in a clash that consumed much of last fall.
The move came from state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, the House education budget-writer.
More:Hanna blasts GOP lawmaker as 'bully' for retaliatory state budget item after masks fight
Fine played a central role in promoting claims last fall by parents of a Brevard County student with Down Syndrome who said their child was abused by teachers when a mask was tied to her face.
The claim coursed through conservative media, was seized on by a DeSantis spokeswoman, and the girl’s father repeated the story on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Show. Law enforcement investigators later dismissed the case – concluding it was built around staged photos and false statements.
Now, with Florida’s school mask fight receding into history and as states including New York, Connecticut and California, scale back far stricter policies, Fine on Wednesday fired another shot.
The $200 million is taken from the state’s biggest, urban counties where COVID-19 cases were high and school mask-wearing required at least for several months last year. The money would be scattered to other counties that didn’t challenge DeSantis.
Since all Florida districts would see overall increases in the $105.3 billion state budget advanced Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee, the mask penalty won’t be that harmful, Fine said.
“It is intended to reward the 55 school districts, the overwhelming majority of which followed our state law and respected the rights of parents over the past year,” Fine said of what he called the “Putting Parents First Adjustment Deduct.”
The Senate doesn’t include the policy in its $108.6 billion state budget proposal. The budgets were approved by committees Wednesday in the House and Senate, but it’s unclear whether Fine’s idea will survive work between the two sides on reaching a consensus spending plan for 2022-23 before the Legislature’s scheduled March 11 finish.
Brevard mask case dismissed:Parents of girl with Down Syndrome in mask-tying case made false statements, staged photos, police say
Parents still sue:Family of 'Sofia' files $100m federal lawsuit against teachers, Brevard School Board
Parent views mixed on masking:Mixed reactions as Sarasota school mandate for students, staff to mask takes effect
Districts rebel:Florida school districts rebel against governor's mask order, presenting political test
Move echoes student mask wars of last summer
DeSantis last summer issued an executive order allowing only parents to decide whether their children would wear masks in schools. Rules enacted later by the Education Department and Health Department affirmed this parent-based standard and led to the withholding of pay from school board members in eight of the districts that continued to require masks.
The Biden administration also got into the clash, backing defiant school districts. In December, paychecks withheld from school board members were returned by the Florida Education Department.
The ban on school mask mandates was finally cemented into state law in November, during a special legislative session. The measure signed by DeSantis prohibits vaccine and mask requirements in schools.
The counties penalized under Fine’s “Putting Parents First” proposal are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia.
In Miami-Dade, the largest county affected, schools would lose almost $72 million; Indian River, the smallest, is tapped for $1.3 million. Fine included in the House budget a line that the deduction will not “reduce funding for any direct educational service or resource that impacts the education of kindergarten through grade 12 students.”
Instead, he said the money will be taken from state funds directed toward administrators making more than $100,000 annually. “These are bureaucrats, not people in the classrooms,” Fine said, in response to questions from Democrats.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, pointed out that plenty of staff in the Republican-led Legislature earn more than the $100,000 threshold targeted.
And Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, also asked Fine if he was simply looking to punish districts that offended him.
“We have the power of paper ... but we also have the power of the purse,” Fine said, adding that “it’s about holding people accountable.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport