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DeSantis forced to walk back threat against education officials

Florida's Republican governor threatened the salaries of school superintendents who created mask requirements. That didn't work out well for him.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' (R) office threatened the salaries of school superintendents this week, I posed a question: Is the Republican governor prepared to follow through on his threats and punish education officials trying to stop the spread of a deadly virus? Or will he quietly back off and risk appearing weak in advance of his upcoming campaigns?

Yesterday, the answer came into focus. The Miami Herald reported:

Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration signaled earlier this week that it would slash the pay of Florida school superintendents and school board members who defy the governor on school masks. But now — as two Florida districts, including Broward County Public Schools, remain defiant — the governor's office is acknowledging the state has no control over local employees' pay.


A Politico report added DeSantis has the authority to "levy hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against school districts" -- a step the Republican could still theoretically take -- but it would be up to local school officials to cut their own pay, which seems extraordinarily unlikely.

For those who may need a recap as to how we arrived at this point, as COVID-19 cases in Florida soared last week, and hospitals faced a brutal crunch, DeSantis took swift action -- by barring school districts from requiring masks. This simple step could help stem the tide of the pandemic, but the governor wouldn't budge.

When some Florida school superintendents moved forward with plans to require masks anyway, the governor's office issued a public warning, threatening the officials' salaries.

To their credit, some local superintendents said they were more concerned with the public-health crisis than the Republican's political agenda. Indeed, Carlee Simon, the schools superintendent in Alachua County, wrote a Washington Post op-ed, explaining, "[W]e don't have the luxury of ignoring the current crisis to score political points."

Simon's piece went on to explain why she's adopted universal masking for schools in her county, concluding, "I value life too much to take chances with the lives of others, even under the threat of retaliation. As our school board chair has so aptly put it, better a loss of funding than a loss of lives."

Miami-Dade County's superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, added soon after, "At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck."

Now, that threat has largely disappeared.

What's less clear is what, if anything, DeSantis will do next. If the governor's administration seriously wants to pursue financial penalties against schools districts that rely on masks to curtail the spread of the virus, it can do that.

But it probably wouldn't be an especially smart move for a politician who appears to be gearing up for a re-election campaign and a presidential bid. It'd be a tough sell for DeSantis to effectively tell voters, "My administration punished school districts in my state for trying to stop the spread of a virus during a pandemic."