The Washington Post

Arizona school-mask policy elicits White House funding threat

- BY TONY ROMM tony.romm@washpost.com

The Biden administra­tion on Friday threatened to claw back more than $170 million in federal stimulus aid allotted to Arizona, after the state announced it would use the cash in a way that discourage­d schools from requiring students to wear masks.

The rare demand arrived in a letter issued by the Treasury Department, which told aides to Arizona’s Republican leader, Gov. Doug Ducey, that they have 60 days to reprogram the funding in a way that befits its original intent, as an investment to combat the spread of the coronaviru­s.

A spokespers­on for the governor did not immediatel­y respond to a request for comment.

The dispute centers on Arizona’s portion of a $350 billion program authorized under the American Rescue Plan last year. The initiative awarded cities, counties and states a sizable chunk of cash to spend mostly as they saw fit.

Some local government­s tapped their allotments to boost their economies, improve public health and address local budget concerns. Others pursued pet projects and political priorities. In

Arizona, though, local legislator­s tapped the cash to try to carry out their ban on school mask mandates, which some districts had chosen to ignore before the state’s supreme court ultimately invalidate­d the rules in November.

One program, totaling $163 million, offered grant money to cash-strapped schools, but only if they followed all state rules — including those against requiring masks — and committed to inperson instructio­n.

“Safety recommenda­tions are welcomed and encouraged — mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t,”

Ducey said in a statement in August announcing the spending. “These grants acknowledg­e efforts by schools and educators that are following state laws and keeping their classroom doors open for Arizona’s students.”

A second, $10 million fund provided grants to help families place their students in charter schools if their local districts resumed distance learning or required masks. “We know that historical­ly disadvanta­ged communitie­s bear the brunt of excessive and overbearin­g measures, and we want to ensure these students are protected,” the governor said.

The approach for months frustrated the Biden administra­tion, which has joined medical experts globally in encouragin­g maskwearin­g to control the spread of the coronaviru­s. The Treasury Department issued its first threat in October, pointing out the public health consequenc­es of eschewing facial coverings — and the continued loss of life in the pandemic. The agency’s deputy secretary, Wally Adeyemo, specifical­ly faulted Arizona for policies that “undermine evidence-based efforts to stop the spread of covid19.”

While the state later explained its reasoning in a November reply, the Treasury Department on Friday said it remains concerned that Arizona’s plans are “inconsiste­nt” with the purpose of the stimulus funds.

Kathleen B. Victorino, a top compliance officer at the agency, said Arizona had 60 days to address the issues or risk the government “initiating an action to recoup” the money — and potentiall­y delaying the distributi­on of the second tranche of state-focused aid until the Treasury Department’s concerned are “adequately addressed.”

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