Florida Imposes Penalties on School Districts With Mask Rules, Despite Court Ruling

The Florida Department of Education on Monday announced it was withholding funds from at least two school districts in the state in response to their rules on masking for students and staff. It’s doing this in spite of last week’s court ruling, which said that the districts were within their rights to make such rules.

The salaries of Broward County and Alachua County school district officials will be withheld, said Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, because the mask rules they implemented, designed to help keep students and staff safe by preventing the spread of coronavirus, went against an order from Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) banning districts from making such rules.

“The withholding of funds will continue monthly until each school board complies with state law and rule,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran tried to frame his department’s actions in terms of “protect[ing] parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children,” in a statement.

“What’s unacceptable is the politicians who have raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to uphold the Constitution but are not doing so,” Corcoran added.

Yet a ruling from Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper on Friday disagreed with the notion that mask rules in schools were unconstitutional, as Corcoran has claimed. Indeed, Cooper sided with parents and school administrators in the state, who had sued the DeSantis administration using the very law that allowed the governor to issue the mask mandate ban in the first place.

Noting that the Parents’ Bill of Rights created by the Republican legislature and signed into law in June by Gov. DeSantis doesn’t allow government leaders to “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent” regarding a child’s upbringing, education, health care choices and mental health “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest,” Judge Cooper said that the state had not met that standard.

“My ruling in this case, if you want to put it in one sentence, is, I am enforcing the bill passed by the Legislature and requiring that anyone who uses that bill to follow all provisions and not part of the provisions,” Cooper said.

Corcoran was able to go forward with punishing actions against officials from Broward and Alachua Counties on Monday, however, because Cooper has yet to make an official order related to his ruling last week.

The brazen move by the Florida Education Department also comes as the U.S. Department of Education, through its civil rights office, launched investigations into five states that have issued similar mask mandate bans on localities throughout the country. That investigation so far does not include Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona, due to court decisions and other factors that have not allowed those states’ bans to be fully implemented.

The Biden administration has promised to proactively respond to any punishment state officials impose on school district administrators, with the president himself using stark language to say that the federal government would compensate anyone who was penalized in the way Florida is now attempting to do.

“Some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said earlier this month of governors who were issuing mask mandate bans. “We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”