Florida was the only state that failed to submit a plan necessary to qualify for a federal aid program designed to buoy the state's public school system, according to the U.S. Department Education – and the department is struggling to ascertain why.
This article first appeared in Salon.
"[The Florida Department of Education's] delay raises significant concerns because of the unnecessary uncertainty it is creating for school districts across the state and because it is hindering their ability to confidently plan for how to use these funds to address the needs of students," wrote Ian Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Programs for the U.S. Department of Education, in a Monday missive.
The state's failure "to meet its responsibilities is delaying the release of essential … resources that are needed by school districts and schools to address the needs of students most impacted by the pandemic," Rosenblum added, noting that the state missed multiple timelines for the relief money.
Back in March, as part of President Biden's American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER), Florida received two-thirds of its $7 billion federal aid package to support "students' health and safety and address their social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic," Rosenblum explained in his letter.
But according to The Tallahassee Democrat, the federal government is still holding onto $2.3 billion of this package because the Sunshine State failed to submit plans detailing how the remainder would be spent.
In addition, Department of Education records indicate that Florida has scarcely spent the federal funds it has already been distributed by the Biden administration. The state has reportedly spent 79% of its disbursement from the CARES Act, 15.6% of its allotment from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and 4% of its ARP funds.
No money has been directed to local school districts, according to federal officials, but parents, employees, and local officials have clearly expressed that Florida's public school system is in dire need of a lifeline, Rosenblum said in his letter.
"There is a massive crisis with bus shortages and teacher shortages. It's clear that districts need the money," Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Educators Association, echoed to The Tallahassee Democrat.
Meanwhile, the governor's office has casted doubt over the scope of the state's needs, telling CNN on Tuesday: "At this time, no district has articulated a need for funding that cannot be met with currently available resources. Whenever this may change in the future, the state of Florida will coordinate with USDOE to ensure Florida students and educators have all the resources they need."
State Sen. Lori Berman, who sits on Florida's Education Committee, suggested that the state's failure to meet the federal relief is likely an "ideological statement."
"It's disgraceful. I've seen this state repeatedly turn down federal money because of ideological reasons," Berman told Salon in an interview. "You have to look no further than the issue of Medicaid expansion. We are one of only twelve states in the country that has not expanded Medicaid, and it's billions of federal dollars that we continually refuse to draw down because of ideological reasons."
State Sen. Tina Polsky, speculated that the state's failure to use and apply for federal aid stems from a pattern of "distrust and dislike of public schools."
"I don't understand because 90% of Floridian students go to public school," Polsky told Salon in an interview. "As much as [Republicans] would like to change that to all voucher, all charter, or all anything but public, it's not going to happen. And they're not looking out for the 90%."
The development is just the latest in an ever-widening rift between Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, CNN notes. Throughout this year, the governor has fought tooth-and-nail against Democratic-backed proposals to institute vaccine and mask mandates for both schools and businesses.
Back in July, DeSantis issued an executive order banning the enforcement of mask mandates in schools, even though children under twelve are not eligible for vaccines. In August, Florida's Department of Education further revealed that it withheld money from school districts whose boards backed mask mandates.
But Biden has started to push back on DeSantis' crusade. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education repaid members of school boards whose salaries were withheld by Florida's Department of Education. It has also opened a civil rights probe into whether the governor's ban on mask mandates violates the rights of students with disabilities.