PHOENIX - Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced Tuesday that district and charter schools that follow all state laws and remain open for in-person learning will be eligible for $163 million in additional funding.
The Republican created a the school grant program using federal virus relief funds he controls, but schools that have mask mandates or have to close because of COVID-19 outbreaks won’t be eligible for the additional $1,800 per student.
"Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged — mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t," Ducey said in a statement. "These grants acknowledge efforts by schools and educators that are following state laws and keeping their classroom doors open for Arizona’s students."
According to a news release from the governor's office, the funding comes from the American Rescue Plan and will be distributed to all eligible schools from Aug. 27 to the end of the school year. The funding will be distributed through the Education Plus Up Grant program.
"Parents have worked tirelessly over the past year and a half to keep their kids on track," Ducey said in a statement. "Parents are in the driver’s seat, and it’s their right to make decisions that best fit the needs of their children. Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged — mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t. These grants acknowledge efforts by schools and educators that are following state laws and keeping their classroom doors open for Arizona’s students. My thanks to legislative leadership for working collaboratively over the last couple of months to put more money into K-12 education and ensure schools are in compliance with state law."
School districts with current mask mandates will have 10 days to rescind them or lose out on the money, Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said. That’s despite the fact that a law banning schools from enacting those rules does not go into effect for more than a month.
The new grant "is contingent on being in full compliance with state law, including Laws 2021, Chapter 404, the FY 2022 K-12 Budget Reconciliation Bill for the entirety of the 2021-2022 school year."
Last week, dozens of Arizona Republican lawmakers called on the governor publicly to reprimand state school districts for enacting COVID-19 guidelines that they say showcase a "refusal to follow state law."
Arizona is one of eight states that have laws or executive orders banning mask requirements in public schools, with some landing in the courts. Education advocates have filed a lawsuit over Arizona’s ban and several other state laws that restrict the power of local governments and school districts to impose COVID-19 requirements.
The state’s GOP-led Legislature this year rejected an expansion of the voucher program that now gives about 10,000 students public cash to attend private schools. Students who do not have special needs get 90% of the state funding, about $7,000 each, that would have gone to their local public school to pay for private school tuition or other costs.
Ducey announces relief program for K-12 students
Ducey also announced $10 million in funding as part of a relief program for K-12 students and families "who are facing financial aid educational barriers due to unnecessary closures and school mandates and that are not in compliance with the provisions set forth in state law."
According to a news release, the COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit program will fund up to $7,000 per student for child care, transportation, online tutoring, and tuition.
Eligible families must have a total household income that is at or below 350% of the federal poverty level.
Applications for the grant will be accepted beginning Aug. 20 on a first come, first basis at https://arizonatogether.org/educationalrecoverybenefit/.
"We are committed to keeping all Arizona kids on track, closing the achievement gap and equipping underserved students and families with the tools they need to thrive," Ducey said in a news release. "Our COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit will empower parents to exercise their choice when it comes to their child’s education and COVID-19 mitigation strategies. It will also give families in need the opportunity to access educational resources like tutoring, child care, transportation and other needs. We know that historically disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of excessive and overbearing measures, and we want to ensure these students are protected."
Announcement stirs controversy
The governor’s moves come as an increasing number of school districts defy the provision in the newly enacted state budget that bans mask mandates and instead follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding face coverings. Ducey and Republicans who control the Legislature crafted the state’s restrictions.
Democratic House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding said Ducey was creating his own "Hunger Games" for Arizona schools with his actions.
"It’s a sickening irony that he’s doing this by dangling millions of federally provided funds for COVID-19 relief and forcing school districts to choose between the health and safety of kids and educators, or millions in additional funding that Republicans have withheld for years," Bolding said in a statement. "With the delta variant running rampant and COVID-19 cases among children on the rise, it’s disgusting to put a bounty on spreading this illness to kids and punishing schools that try to operate safely."
And Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in a tweet called Ducey’s action "the most absurdly dangerous and anti-science step (he) has taken."
"Until kids under 12 have access to the vaccine, what are parents supposed to do?" she asked. "Just hope their kids don’t get sick and end up in the ICU?"
Arizona has seen coronavirus cases surge in the last six weeks, and numerous school districts have had large outbreaks. State health officials on Tuesday reported 2,661 cases and three deaths from the virus.
Debates over mask mandate for schools continue
Gov. Ducey's announcement was made amid heightened debate over the implementation of mask mandates for schools.
Parents protested outside an empty Scottsdale Unified School District building Tuesday night hoping their anti-mask mandate message reaches the school board.
The board held a virtual meeting Tuesday night to discuss the mandate.
One parent said they came out "to express our desire to have a choice about masking our children." Another parent said, "The children can decide themselves and if they’re too young and the parents should decide if they wear a mask or not."
After a night of deliberation, the board voted in favor of implementing a mask mandate, which goes into effect Aug. 20.
Paradise Valley and Litchfield Elementary school districts also announced mask mandates Tuesday night that go into effect Aug. 19.
"Now, I think right now the governor is using his role to be a politician instead of doing what's best for our kids and our communities," said Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association.
Arizona lawmaker Greg Stanton accuses Ducey of a dangerous science-denying mission and playing politics with money from the American Rescue plan.
Senator Martin Casada couldn’t agree more, saying, "He's trying to bribe them to ignore common sense health measures like masks that would keep our kids safe."
Some parents also show their opposition to mask mandates in an event organized by State Sen. Kelly Townsend, where Pinal County officials supported a proclamation that, among other things, stands up for "parents rights" as freedoms.
"The parent is in charge of their children. End of story. Done!" said one parent at the event.
Other parents, however, say they support masks for students.
"Freedom is not an excuse to put others in danger," said Phil Bohn of Chandler.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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