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The Florida Department of Education gears up to fight the federal government over payments to school districts

Simple drawing of two red school houses on a yellow piece of paper.
Lindsay Johnson

The Florida Department of Education is trying to quash a federal cease-and-desist order issued in a fight over local school mask mandates.

The federal government issued the order after the State Board of Education began withholding additional funding from Broward and Alachua County School Districts. The money was in an amount equal to what the federal government had sent to the districts to reimburse them for dollars the state was already holding back after the board determined the districts were violating a ban on mandatory mask policies by refusing to allow parents to opt-out of them.

The state’s attorney Steven Engle says the U.S. Department of Education is in the wrong for its efforts to circumvent the state.

“The board has withheld funds to those school districts as a penalty for their continuing failure to comply with the laws of this state,” explained attorney Steven Engel, a partner with the firm Dechert LLP. He was hired by the Department of Education to represent it.

"Once they [the districts] come into compliance…then they will receive the withheld state money. The department, therefore, did not reduce any spending on these school districts because of the federal grants.”

A hearing is set for Dec. 10. However, the two districts at the center of the complaint--Broward and Alachua County Schools—are dropping their mandatory mask policies. In return, the state is releasing its funding. The state says the action should end the fight with the federal government, but if it doesn’t—the state will argue its case in court.

“The aim of this board’s enforcement is simply to encourage school districts to comply with the law, a value we all want our children to hold,” state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told board members in a conference call Tuesday about the case. “Now, as you’re aware, during the enforcement process, the Biden administration made its best efforts to both politicize these issues and undermine the legal authority of this board, and indeed the sovereignty of the state of Florida.”

Board Chairman Tom Grady pointed to a recent state administrative court ruling that ruled against several districts that sued over a Department of Health rule that explicitly gives parents the right to opt-out of mask mandates. Grady said the ruling showed the law is on the state’s side.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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