The federal government is increasingly inserting itself into the fight over whether Florida public-school students should be required to wear masks, and top state education officials further escalated a feud with the feds this week.
The State Board of Education on Thursday backed a recommendation by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to financially penalize school boards in eight counties that have maintained student mask mandates to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Corcoran contends the districts are violating a revamped Department of Health rule that aims to give parents the final say over whether public-school students must wear masks. The rule and an earlier version were designed to carry out an executive order issued July 30 by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The financial penalties involve withholding amounts of state money equal to the monthly salaries of board members if the school boards keep mask mandates in place.
But the U.S. Department of Education has started sending money to school districts to cover lost salary money.
That led Thursday to the state education board, made up of DeSantis appointees, deciding to also withhold from districts amounts equal to any federal money coming in to pay school board members’ salaries. The eight counties are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach.
“I strongly believe that this federal grant program improperly attempts to interfere with the state board’s authority to manage our state’s educational system. Education is a state responsibility, not a federal one, and one given to this board under our state’s Constitution,” Corcoran said.
The federal grant program is dubbed Project SAFE, or Supporting America’s Families and Educators. The Alachua and Broward school districts were the first two beneficiaries of the program in the nation, with Alachua receiving $150,000 and Broward receiving $420,000 to backfill salaries.
Corcoran characterized the grants as an attempt by the federal government to “buy off school districts” and to “neutralize and abolish” the state board’s enforcement authority.
But Corcoran’s attempt to head off federal aid drew an immediate rebuke from a top U.S. Department of Education official, who wrote Thursday to Corcoran that the issue “raises legal concerns” about part of a federal law that funds the SAFE grant program.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who also is running for governor in 2022, urged the Biden administration Friday to “use the full weight of the federal government” to stop the state from withholding funding from districts equal to the federal grants.
A ‘TRUE FIGHTER’
An announcement from DeSantis’ office on Monday sent shockwaves through the Florida political world, as it disclosed that First Lady Casey DeSantis is battling breast cancer.
The governor issued a statement about the diagnosis, though the statement did not provide details about issues such as the type of breast cancer, the stage or treatment. Casey DeSantis, 41, is the mother of three children under age 5.
“I am saddened to report that Florida’s esteemed first lady and my beloved wife has been diagnosed with breast cancer. As the mother of three young children, Casey is the centerpiece of our family and has made an impact on the lives of countless Floridians through her initiatives as first lady,” the governor’s statement said in part.
The announcement drew an immediate outpouring of support from both sides of the aisle.
“The prayers of our entire Senate family are with our wonderful First Lady Casey DeSantis, Governor DeSantis and their entire family as they face this serious health challenge,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said on Twitter.
Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat who has considered running for governor next year, tweeted: “All of Florida is rooting for you @FLCaseyDeSantis to beat cancer and for a speedy recovery. Our prayers are with the Governor, you and the entire First Family.”
Casey DeSantis, a former Jacksonville television personality, has played a prominent role in her husband’s administration, particularly on issues such as mental-health and substance-abuse services.
DEPARTING THE ENTERPRISE
Enterprise Florida President and CEO Jamal Sowell will step down as the leader of DeSantis’ business-recruitment efforts this month to prepare for specialized training with the U.S. Navy Reserve
“While I have served in Afghanistan as a Marine Corps Officer and now continue to serve as an officer in the Navy Reserve, I still feel compelled to the call of service,” Sowell wrote to DeSantis in a letter that said he will leave the job in late October.
Sowell praised DeSantis, a U.S. Navy veteran, for his handling of the state’s economy through the pandemic.
“What you did was very simple but very different from other states, you let the world know that we were open and ready for business,” Sowell wrote. “That alone drew remarkable interest in Florida and Florida businesses, sparking a migration of hundreds of thousands of new residents here.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: The State Board of Education on Thursday ratcheted up discipline against eight county school boards that have maintained student mask mandates to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “As she faces the most difficult test of her life, she will … not only have my unwavering support but the support of our entire family, as well as the prayers and well wishes from Floridians across our state. Casey is a true fighter, and she will never, never, never give up.” — Gov. Ron DeSantis on First Lady Casey DeSantis’ breast-cancer diagnosis