Florida strips schools of federal aid for mask mandates

The Florida Department of Education (DOE) this week withheld hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding from two school districts because of their masking policies, defying warnings from the Biden administration.

Alachua County officials in a statement said the state stripped more than $160,000 this week as punishment for the school district requiring masks. 

That figure equals the monthly salary of five school board members, as well as the entire amount of the federal grant meant to compensate school districts that have their money withheld by the state.

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Separately, Broward County said the state withheld more than $450,000, which the county said encompasses the monthly school board salary as well as the full amount of federal grant funding. 

Since August, the county said Florida has withheld nearly $530,000 in funding.

The announcements come just one day after the Biden administration warned the state that such a move would violate federal law, and represents an escalation of the administration's battle with Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisMore voters would pick Trump over Biden if election were held today: poll 17 Democratic state AGs back challenge to Florida voting limits The Memo: Media obsess over Trump's past as he eyes comeback MORE (R) over COVID-19 safety measures in schools.

Both Alachua and Broward counties have instituted mask requirements for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. The Broward County school board on Tuesday voted to make masks optional for high school students, staff and visitors, but kept the mandate in place for elementary and middle schools. 

State rules require school districts to allow parents to opt out of any school district student masking rules, without any reason. Alachua and Broward counties require doctors' notes.

Alachua County's superintendent said the state made the cuts to its October budget before the district even saw the federal grant.

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"I am appalled that the state would penalize the district by pulling funding we have not even received," Alachua County Public Schools superintendent Carlee Simon said in a statement Wednesday.

Florida deducted $164,505 from Alachua’s October budget allocation, a total that includes the monthly salary of school board members and the entire share of a $147,717 grant promised by the Biden administration, Simon said.

According to Simon, the state has withheld more than $192,000 over the past two months because the district was "taking appropriate action to protect students and staff."

She said more than 75 percent of that amount is funding intended to support students, because the school has yet to draw down any of the federal grant.

In a letter sent earlier this week, the DOE warned the state that it was in violation of federal law.

In the letter, the agency said it expects Florida "to comply with all requirements applicable to its federal grant awards. 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."