Wall S⁠t⁠ree⁠t⁠ Journal: Flor⁠i⁠da Calls a Truce ⁠i⁠n ⁠t⁠he Mask Wars

By: William Mattox / 2021

William Mattox




An existing school-choice program lets parents decide what’s best for their kids.

Tallahassee, Fla.

The Sunshine State has a peace plan for the school mask wars: educational choice.

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order July 30 to “protect parents’ right to make decisions regarding masking of their children,” but four of the state’s local school boards announced they’d impose mask mandates anyway.

So, last week the Florida Department of Education issued a rule making students who suffer “COVID-19 harassment” eligible for a Hope Scholarship that allows them to attend another (public or private) school of their parents’ choosing.

The announcement elicited widespread praise from parents who oppose mask mandates and knee-jerk derision from Mr. DeSantis’s detractors nationwide. But the most interesting response came from some Covid-wary Florida parents who support mask requirements. They asked if they too could take advantage of the Hope Scholarships. The department said yes.

Thus, it is now possible for families on all sides of the mask wars to send their kids to a school with Covid policies that match their preferences. That’s a win-win.

The policy is rooted in the legislation that created the Hope Scholarship program. It allows parents to transfer a child who feels threatened or harassed to another school. When the Florida Legislature overwhelmingly adopted this scholarship, lawmakers were mostly concerned about bullying from other students. But the department says the law’s language can be legitimately applied when students are harassed or mistreated over masking issues.

By putting the power to make safety-related schooling decisions in the hands of families, Florida acknowledges that parents know best how to weigh Covid’s risks to their children. A household with an immunocompromised family member may perceive the risks differently than one with mental-health concerns.

The pandemic has made student safety a major concern for every parent in every neighborhood. And Covid has exposed the folly of leaving K-12 schooling decisions in the hands of central planners who believe their one-size-fits-all mandates can somehow serve families with very different needs, concerns and priorities.

The department’s new rule is unlikely to spur a mass exodus from Florida’s public schools—in large part because most school districts are heeding the governor’s call for “mask optional” policies that most families find acceptable.

But it gives families that feel trapped by their local district’s policies a way of escape. And it further enshrines the unimpeachable idea behind Florida’s first-in-the-nation student safety scholarship: No child should be required to attend a school that his parents consider unsafe.

Mr. Mattox is director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute.

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