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Ducey Dangles Federal Funding To Discourage Arizona Schools From Mandating Masks

In an effort to discourage Arizona public school leaders from requiring students and staff wear masks, Gov. Doug Ducey is offering grants to boost per pupil funding in public and charter schools, as well as provide grants to parents who want to send their kids to different schools.

Schools that follow Ducey’s orders to make masks optional and keep classrooms open for in-person learning will be eligible for $163 million in federal funding made available through the American Rescue Plan.

And parents who meet household income requirements can get up to $7,000 per student to pay for child care, transportation, online tutoring and tuition — all to avoid what Ducey calls “overbearing measures,” like mask mandates and remote learning.

“Parents have worked tirelessly over the past year and a half to keep their kids on track,” Ducey tweeted. “They’re in the driver’s seat, and it’s their right to make decisions that best fit the needs of their kids.”

The Republican governor has been at odds with school leaders across the state who’ve mandated masks in defiance of his orders. At least 19 school districts across the state and some charter schools are requiring masks in their school campuses. 

Hear Capitol Media Services' Howard Fischer Explain The Standoff Over Masks With Host Mark Brodie On The Show


Ducey has leaned on a state law, adopted as part of the budget in June, banning school districts from requiring masks on campus.

But a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled Monday that the law is not yet in effect and won’t be until Sept. 29. 

Yet Ducey’s grants for school districts and charters require schools to get in compliance with the governor’s directives by Aug. 27 to be eligible for the per pupil funding boost, according to spokesman C.J. Karamargin.  Schools that shift to remote instruction at the direction of their local health department would still qualify, he said.

Karamargin said the grant program wasn’t about punishing school districts but rewarding them.

In a statement, Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, said Ducey’s latest announcements “demonstrate a remarkable ability to ignore any lessons gained from a year and a half of dealing with COVID-19.”

“The goal is in-person learning — something that cannot be achieved by forcing sick students to go back to school with their healthy peers,” Hoffman said.

As for parents unhappy with mask mandates or other COVID-19 mitigation measures at their children's’ schools, the state will begin accepting grant applications on Friday. Parents will have to demonstrate their current school is isolating or quarantining certain students, or giving preferential treatment to vaccinated students. Only households with a total income at or below 350% of the federal poverty level can apply.

But some private schools, including Brophy College Preparatory,which Ducey’s own sons attended, are implementing masking, COVID-19 vaccines, quarantine and isolation policies in accordance with public health guidance. It’s legal for private schools to do so since the legislation banning mask mandates in schools only applies to public school districts and charters.  

→  List: Arizona School Districts Requiring Masks For 2021-2022 School Year

House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding called this ironic.

"The governor is attempting to revive a failed and unpopular effort to expand private-school vouchers, using misinformation and anti-mask hysteria as an excuse,” Bolding said. “Ironically, many private schools, including Brophy Prep, require masks and vaccinations to attend.”

Chris Kotterman with the Arizona School Boards Association also notes that shifting to remote learning, quarantine and isolation are not forbidden under state law and he said he thinks these efforts fly in the face of public health guidance.

“One of the unfortunate parts of the politicization of COVID has been this drive to cast school districts as having failed low-income students and the state’s need to offer them school choice, specifically private school choice as a way to ‘rescue them’ from the district school system,” Kotterman said.

But in a statement, Ducey said he believes historically disadvantaged children have borne the brunt of what he calls “excessive and overbearing” measures and wants to ensure these students are protected.

Ducey’s programs follow a demand by more than two dozen Republican senators and representatives, who called on the governor to withhold federal funding from school districts violating school regulations GOP lawmakers added to the budget and provide aid to students “trapped within any school district that is non-compliant with state law.”

U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, a Democrat, has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Treasury questioning whether Ducey can use COVID-19 relief dollars this way and urged clarification from the department.

The governor’s office also announced $64.9 million in state and federal funding for a host of programs designed to boost K-12 literacy, support adult education and give teachers access to professional development.

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Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.