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DeSantis rejects a proposed budget cut to schools that defied his mask mandate ban and floats extending it to private schools

Ron DeSantis wears a dark navy suit. He stands in front of a lecturn with many news microphones. A red-haired woman next to him is speaking with sign language.
Lynne Sladky/AP
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AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a briefing near the Champlain Towers South condo building, where scores of victims remain missing more than a week after it partially collapsed, Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Gov. Ron DeSantis says he does not support stripping funding from the dozen Florida school districts that defied his ban on mandatory student masking. But he would support allowing parents to sue those districts if they could prove their children were harmed by the policy.

The governor’s comments come as the House pitches a $200 million cut to districts that refused to allow parents to opt their kids out of mandatory face mask policies.

The battle between the districts and the governor was eventually settled in the courts, with the Governor winning. Large and urban districts like Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange along with others, did eventually drop their requirements that students wear face coverings. The issue appeared settled until the Florida House recently rolled out a budget proposal that would reduce the budgets of the 12 districts that defied the governor by $200 million. The plan, developed by Rep. Randy Fine, targets the salaries of administrators who make $100,000 or more. The money would be redistributed to districts that did not have mask mandates.

Speaking at a Jackson County press conference Friday, DeSantis pitched an alternative punishment.

“Rather than take money that may penalize a teacher or student because of the action of some union-controlled school board member, what you could do is say any parent whose kid was illegally force-masked in Florida in any of those districts, they should have the right to sue if their kids have any negative effects of it," DeSantis said.

That could cost districts way more than $200 million. DeSantis is concerned the House's proposed cut as written would impact teachers and also programs. The lawsuit idea, he said, targets the people responsible for the decision-making and addresses parents' concerns about harm to their children.

“If they [children] have any speech problems, if they have emotional problems, physical problems-they [school districts] flouted the law and they should be liable for the consequences of their actions. So if the legislature goes down that route, I think that would be very beneficial.”

During the height of the mask fights, the state allowed parents who disagreed with local mask mandates to use the corporate tax scholarship program and send their kids to private schools. What many parents found when they used that option is that the private schools had mandatory mask policies too—which DeSantis also wants to curb.

"Some of these parochial schools that are force-masking their kids after all this data and evidence is in—it’s like Japanese soldiers in the 1950s thinking the war is still going on—stop force-masking these kids," DeSantis said. "And if you’re getting the Step Up For Students scholarship, I think, 100%, those parents need to have the same ability to make these decisions for their kid as every other parent in the state of Florida, so I hope the legislature will take that up as well.”  

Step Up for Students is the state's largest administrator of the school voucher program.

The Florida legislature has long drawn a distinction between how it treats public and private schools—noting private schools, which aren’t generally taxpayer-funded—are free to make their own rules and policies just as private businesses are. Private schools also don’t have to adhere to the same academic and testing requirements as public schools.

DeSantis’ call to extend the mask ban to those schools could become a tricky proposition for private schools. Step Up for Students said it has no comment on DeSantis’ proposal.

Senate President Wilton Simpson was recently asked about the House’s plan to cut funding from the defiant districts. He said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach but added “if any organization in the state is not following state law, whether it’s a school board, county, or any other municipality, I think there should be consequences. Now, what those consequences are, are debatable. And I’ve not really dug into that issue at all in the Senate yet.”  

Simpson said he’s not sure whether his chamber will go along with the House’s plan.

DeSantis signed off on an executive order in July that said districts could not require students to wear face coverings without allowing parents to opt-out of the policy. It was quickly followed by a Department of Health rule that sought to execute the order. Most districts complied, but a dozen—citing increasing infections caused by the Delta variant of the coronavirus—went ahead with more restrictive rules. The state board of education threatened to fine the districts that defied the order and state and federal lawsuits on both sides of the issue, ensued. The federal government also jumped into the fray by offering to fund districts that saw their budgets cut.

Eventually, the DeSantis administration prevailed in court, and as infections began to wane in the winter, the defiant districts reversed their policies. The Department of Health also rewrote its rule to make it clear that medical-only mask opt-outs were not acceptable.