Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is backing a controversial proposal to strip $200m in education funding from Democratic counties that defied his executive order last year banning mask mandates in schools.
DeSantis, who is widely seen as a leading heir to Donald Trump in the Republican party, plans to send the money instead to mostly Republican counties that supported him.
The plan, which some analysts believe is almost certainly unconstitutional, was part of a budget bill that passed the Republican-dominated Florida house on Wednesday.
It was immediately attacked by teachers unions, school districts and education advocates, who say the penalties will strip further resources from classrooms in a state already in the bottom four of per-student spending nationally.
“This is retaliation by legislators and the governor,” said Jabari Hosey, president of the advocacy group Families for Safe Schools and a parent of school-age children in Brevard county.
“We are down over 150 teachers in Brevard right now. We need more social workers, there’s a performance gap because of Covid that is still present in our community. We need more funds, more opportunities, more instructors.
“To retaliate and to attack the public school system they are supposed to be promoting is very sad. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.”
Under the proposal by the Republican state congressman Randy Fine, school districts in the 12 Florida counties that implemented mask mandates last summer in defiance of DeSantis’s executive order will forfeit amounts based on their size.
Brevard, where Hosey’s children attend school, and which Fine represents, would forgo $4.5m.
Two-thirds of the money would come from south Florida, which votes overwhelmingly Democratic in local, state and national elections. Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth largest district with 357,000 students, would lose $72m; Broward, the sixth largest with 270,000 students, would forfeit about $32m; and Palm Beach, the 10th largest with 193,000 would give up $28m.
Of the others, Alachua, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Orange, Sarasota and Volusia counties, all but three backed Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election in Florida, which was won by Donald Trump.
“Following the law is not optional. These school districts broke the law, and they were broken for nothing,” a visibly angry Fine told fellow legislators on Wednesday.
He insisted during a turbulent session of the Florida house appropriations committee last week that the state would cut the salaries of administrators earning more than $100,000 and not “reduce funding for any direct educational service or resource that impacts the education of kindergarten through grade 12 students”.
He conceded, however, that the policy was intentionally punitive to counties who refused to fall in line with the governor. “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,” he said.
A protester holds a placard outside an emergency meeting of the Brevard county school board in Viera in August 2021 to discuss whether face masks in local schools should be mandatory.
Initially, DeSantis, a fierce critic of mask and vaccine mandates, declared himself against the proposal. “My view would be let’s not do that,” he said in an appearance in Jacksonville on Friday, telling reporters he instead preferred to let parents sue school districts individually if they felt children were harmed by “forced masking”.
By Tuesday, however, the governor backtracked, supporting Fine’s initiative and parents’ rights to file lawsuits. “They should get compensated for academic, social and emotional problems caused by these policies,” he said in a tweet.
Having passed the Florida house, the $105bn budget that includes the redistribution of education funds must now be reconciled in the state senate, which also has a Republican majority.
If DeSantis eventually signs it into law, it is likely to face legal challenges. Hosey’s group points out that every Florida county with mandates dropped them as soon as the original executive order became law in November, following a lengthy legal back and forth with districts who insisted they followed advice on masking from the Biden administration and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Additionally, they say, the fines target the salaries of school district administrators who only implemented the mask policies, not the school board members who set them.
John J Sullivan, director of legislative affairs for Broward county public schools, told the Guardian in a statement that students would be directly affected by the withholding of funds.
“We are disappointed in the governor’s reversal. We hope the senate will not agree to penalize administrators who have worked tirelessly to meet the unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic, always focused on the health and safety of students and teachers,” he said.
“This penalty would have a negative impact on the services the district is able to provide to our students.”
Administrators in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have issued similar statements, and educators’ unions have condemned the plan.
“We have 165 vacancies and a lot of it has to do with the salaries we can offer to teachers. So that money would mean a lot to our school district and it’s a shame that someone would do that. It’s totally punitive and politically motivated,” Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange county classroom teachers association told WMFE radio.