In recent weeks, the dispute between Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration and local school districts throughout Florida has intensified. The Republican governor and his team kept telling communities that they couldn't require mask protections in schools, even as the Covid-19 crisis got worse, and local officials kept telling DeSantis that public health measures during a pandemic mattered more than his political agenda.
The dispute recently reached the point at which the governor's administration threatened school districts by making plans to block local officials' paychecks. Last week, those plans appeared to be derailed by a state court ruling that said Florida school boards have the authority to create their own safety policies — whether DeSantis likes them or not.
It was against this backdrop that the governor moved forward with his retribution campaign anyway. NBC News reported this morning:
The Florida Department of Education made good on a threat to withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates. Just days after a state judge ruled that the governor's ban was unconstitutional, Florida's education commissioner on Monday announced the state was withholding funds from Alachua and Broward counties "for their continued violation of state law."
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran argued in an official statement, "Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow."
This has been the basis for the dispute for weeks. The DeSantis administration is of the opinion that school districts have a legal obligation to follow the governor's policy — even if they disagree with it, even if it puts children at risk during a pandemic, even if mask protections are a simple and effective way to help stop the spread of a dangerous virus. The law is the law, the argument goes, even if the "law" in this instance is a gubernatorial order that's likely to make a public health crisis worse.
The trouble, of course, is that a state judge ruled last week that DeSantis' order doesn't "pass constitutional muster."
There are legal experts who can speak to the details with more authority than I can, but I have a hunch this matter will be headed back to a courtroom soon.
Indeed, The Miami Herald reported that Charles Gallagher, who represented the school districts in the aforementioned case, "called Corcoran's decision to order the penalties in the face of the judge's ruling a breach of legal ethics that could draw a contempt of court charge from the court."
Gallagher added, "I don't know how [the state education commissioner] could maintain a straight face that he was allowed to enforce this order."
Meanwhile, at the federal level, NBC News reported that the U.S. Department of Education "has launched a civil rights investigation into whether states that have banned mask mandates are discriminating against students with disabilities who could be at a higher risk for severe illness from Covid."
For now, the department's Office for Civil Rights has opened investigations in five states: Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.
For now, Florida was not included because so many school districts have decided not to enforce DeSantis' policy. Clearly, that's a policy dynamic the Republican governor remains eager to change.