PHOENIX — President Biden directed the nation’s top education official to take action “against governors that are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators” by prohibiting them from requiring the use of masks.
The direction to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona comes on the heels of an expanding number of states, including Arizona, making mask mandates illegal despite the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. And it comes just a day after Gov. Doug Ducey moved to financially penalize school districts that impose such a requirement.
Biden said he expects Cardona to use “all of his oversight authority and legal action if appropriate” to bring errant states into line.
The speech comes hours after Cardona sent a letter to Ducey warning that the Arizona law and his decision to withhold COVID-19 relief dollars from schools that impose mask requirements may violate federal law. And Cardona also warned he may take action against the state.
What makes that important is that Cardona is enlarging the scope of what fits under those rules of how schools must act to protect the civil rights of students and teachers.
“So if a parent or teacher or student feels like they aren’t able to be safe in schools because of certain laws put in place, they can file a complaint,” she said. “We can pursue the investigation and kind of go from there.”
Cardona did not specifically address Ducey’s actions where he announced he is distributing $163 million in federal COVID relief dollars — but only to schools without mask mandates. The governor also said he would use federal dollars to provide $7,000 vouchers to parents of children in schools with mask requirements so they could instead send them to private or parochial schools.
But the education secretary strongly suggested that is not what is the intended use of the American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
Ducey brushed aside the president’s comments. “What is it about families they don’t trust?” asked press aide C.J. Karamargin.
The governor has repeatedly emphasized that nothing in state law or any of his directives prevents parents from putting masks on their children. But that could still leave them at least partially exposed to the potential of being infected by unmasked students and adults who may be contagious.
The letter to Ducey comes the same day that U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., wrote to Cardona complaining that the governor is punishing schools that follow CDC guidelines. “Gov. Ducey is yet again pursuing reckless and inhumane proposals that will continue to exacerbate this public health crisis,” Grijalva wrote. “In addition, it puts into question the legality around him restricting public health mitigation measures in the first place.”
Tucson Unified, Amphitheater, Catalina Foothills and Flowing Wells school districts are all requiring universal masking indoors. Sunnyside and Tanque Verde school districts both have meetings this week to discuss whether to implement a mask mandate.
Grijalva said Ducey’s financial incentives to schools that don’t require masks is retribution against schools that defied him.
“It’s like the schoolyard bully — he has to get his way,” Grijalva said. “And if it requires intimidation, it’s not beyond him. This was federal money, destined and earmarked for the safe opening of schools, for the safe functioning of schools, for children and educators in the schools, and he cannot discriminate based on politics. That is for all children.”
U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., in a separate letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, said he is sure Ducey is acting illegally.
“This deeply irresponsible plan appears to violate the plain language of the law as written by Congress as well as the guidance issued by the Department of the Treasury,” he wrote. “These funds are not intended to be used for policies that undercut scientific research to pursue purely partisan ideological priorities.
But the governing boards of at least two districts, Flowing Wells and Scottsdale Unified, approved their own masking requirement Tuesday after Ducey’s announcement. That brings the number of school districts that are defying the governor to about two dozen.
Although Ducey says the grants are for district and charter schools that are “following all state laws and remaining open for in-person instruction,” Catalina Foothills School District argues it is eligible for the grants despite implementing a mask mandate because a judge ruled earlier this week that the legislative ban on mask mandates does not take effect until Sept. 29, so schools with mask mandates are not breaking the law, said spokeswoman Julie Farbarik.
Most of that funding was allocated based on the number of low-income students in a school or district, so most schools eligible for the governor’s grant would have fewer low-income students.
TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said this “systematically eliminates access to this vital funding source for most traditional public-school districts across the state while prioritizing funding access for elite private and charter institutions.”
But some of Tucson’s school districts have argued that they did not receive adequate funding from the federal packages to cover all the expenses associated with COVID-19. Tanque Verde, Sahuarita, Marana and Catalina Foothills would all be eligible for this grant based on how much they received in relief funding.