TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — School districts that ignored Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order banning mask mandates will face a $200 million penalty under a budget bill passed Wednesday by the Florida House. The funding stripped from those districts would be spread among the state’s other districts.
Republican Rep. Randy Fine angrily defended the proposal to punish the 12 districts, saying they broke the law.
“Following the law is not optional. … These school districts broke the law,” Fine said. “And they were broken for nothing.
Fine also said school districts being punished are still getting more money than they did last year because of an overall $1.2 billion increase in public school spending. He also admonished Democrats who accused Republicans of taking $200 million from the disobedient districts out of retribution.
“You want to talk about punitive, I’ll take about punitive,” Fine said. “I think of the first grader who wasn’t able to learn how to speak and read without looking at the face of the colleague across the way. I think of the deaf child … who had to learn how to read lips without seeing the lips of the other children.”
The $105 billion budget passed on a 102-14 vote. Many of the Democrats cited the money shift from the 12 districts among the reasons to oppose it.
“I don’t think we should use our budget to bully municipalities or school boards, or anybody,” said Democratic Rep. Dotie Joseph, whose district is in Miami-Dade County, which has the largest school district in the state and is one of the 12 the House wants to punish.
The 12 districts implemented mask mandates at the beginning of the current school year as the delta variant of COVID-19 was still ravaging the state. The districts have since lifted the mandates. In November, the Legislature held a special session to put DeSantis’ order into law.
Some Democrats supported the bill, but expressed hope that the punishment provision will be taken out when the House and Senate negotiate differences in their spending proposals. The Senate will take up its nearly $109 billion proposal on Thursday.
DeSantis supports the idea of shifting the $200 million away from the 12 districts.
Democrats also criticized the budget for not providing enough money to hospitals that treat Medicaid recipients and not doing more to help people find affordable housing as rents and housing prices skyrocket.
Republicans praised the bill for boosting salaries for state law enforcement and corrections officers and for providing money to help manatees and other environmental projects.
Lawmakers must work out differences in the budget by March 8 if they want to end their session on time. Once an agreement is reached, the chambers can’t vote on it for 72 hours.