TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday appeared to do an about-face on his initial opposition to a House plan that would shift $200 million away from school districts that required students to wear masks last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan is part of a proposed $105 billion state budget that the House is poised to approve Wednesday.
Dubbed the "Putting Parents First Adjustment," the plan is aimed at reducing money going to the school districts in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia counties.
The districts defied an executive order that DeSantis issued in July to try to prevent schools from requiring students to wear masks. The prohibition on mask mandates was effectively cemented in state law during a special legislative session in November.
Democrats have criticized the proposal to strip money from the districts, but House PreK-12 Appropriations Committee Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, defended the proposal Tuesday.
"What it does is, it rewards 55 school districts that followed the law, and holds the other 12 school districts accountable. What I would note, though, is that every school district in the state of Florida will be receiving an increase in funds under this budget. Those 12 school districts, the most you could say is their budget would not be increasing as much," Fine said.
Last week, DeSantis told reporters that he opposed the plan, suggesting instead that parents whose children were required to wear masks should be able to sue school districts.
But on Tuesday, DeSantis tweeted a statement that appeared to back the House proposal.
"Thanks to Speaker (Chris) Sprowls, Representative Fine, and the House of Representatives for heeding my call to protect students and teachers from accountability measures affecting union-controlled politicians and bureaucrats who defied Florida law by force masking kids. Most students didn’t want to wear masks in the first place! Let’s also give parents recourse for harms imposed on their kids due to this defiance. They should get compensated for academic, social, and emotional problems caused by these policies," DeSantis tweeted.
Fine, asked on the House floor about DeSantis’ comments last week, told his colleagues that the governors’ newfound support for the measure came after discussions about the issue.
"What (DeSantis) has asked is something that we agree with. It is the notion of ensuring that we make sure our proviso, which it already does, say that these reductions in growth must come entirely from (school districts’) central offices," Fine said.
Fine argued that money shifted away from the 12 districts would not be taken from "student-facing" programs, but instead would be targeted at what he criticized as districts’ "bloated" administrations.
But Democrats swarmed the proposal, criticizing it as punitive. Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, asked if funds that would be shifted away from the Orange County school district would hurt efforts to recruit and retain teachers amid a scarcity of educators.
The House plan proposes shifting nearly $16.6 million away from Orange County schools.
Fine responded to Eskamani by pointing to other parts of the House’s proposed education budget that are aimed at boosting teacher salaries.
The Senate has not proposed shifting money away from the 12 districts. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, told reporters on Thursday that he had not contemplated a plan similar to the House proposal.
"I think it’s important to hold accountable organizations who do not follow state law. And so, if it is targeted, and I have not really looked at this that closely, but if any organization in this state is not following state law, whether it’s a school board or a county or any other municipality, then I think there should be consequences. Now what those consequences are are debatable, and I have not really dug into that issue at all in the Senate yet," Simpson said.
After the House and Senate approve proposed budgets this week, they will begin negotiations on a final spending plan for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, which will start July 1.