October 1, 2023

Feds threaten action against Florida for fining school districts over masks

The U.S. Department of Education jumped back on Florida’s mask mandate battle on Monday, this time warning the state that it will intervene if the Florida Department of Education sanctions districts to offset federal grant awards.

The latest threat comes a couple of weeks after the State Board of Education authorized the state Department of Education to withhold money from two districts, Broward and Alachua, that received federal grant awards from the Biden administration to backfill state sanctions over their masking rules.

The districts applied for the federal grants after the state withheld funds in an amount equal to the salaries of school board members who voted to require students to wears masks. The federal grants are part of a new program designed specifically to cover any financial sanctions that school districts face because of their mask rules.

Florida would be failing to comply with federal requirements if it follows through with its plan to withhold money from the districts, wrote Ian Rosenblum, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs at the U.S. Department of Education.

“If FLDOE moves forward with its planned reduction of state aid to Alachua and Broward, the department is prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions,” Rosenblum said.

It is unclear what kind of action the federal government could take against the state. The hope, Rosenblum wrote, is that Corcoran will reconsider his threatened actions against Broward and Alachua.

Corcoran has not signaled any intent of backing down, though.

“Yes, we received another harassing and legally hollow letter from U.S. DOE, and again we will continue forward, lawfully, as we have this entire time,” FDOE spokesman Jared Ochs said in response to Wednesday’s letter to Corcoran.

At a State Board of Education meeting earlier this month, Corcoran said the federal grants were encouraging districts to violate Florida law.

“Floridians should be offended by the Biden administration’s use of federal taxes in an attempt to make the enforcement of Florida’s laws so ineffective,” he said.

The Biden administration has sent $420,957 to Broward County Public Schools and $148,000 to Alachua County Public Schools to counteract fines levied by the state.

Alachua and Broward were the first to apply successfully for federal aid. The districts are among the eight districts that are facing state cutbacks as a result of their masking policies.

The Florida Department of Education did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

• • •

Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!

Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.