Florida is the only state in the nation that has not submitted a plan for how it will use billions of dollars in federal school relief funds provided under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP) — and the U.S. Education Department says it is concerned about the consequences for school districts.

The department sent a letter on Monday to the administration Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) saying that the state’s refusal to provide a plan to use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) dollars “is hindering” the ability of school districts “to confidently plan for how to use these funds to address the needs of students.”

DeSantis’s office said that the governor and the Florida Department of Education “have gone out of their way to ensure that districts were not held in harm’s way for the funding of students who did not attend school in person during the pandemic.” [See complete response below.]

This is the latest skirmish between DeSantis and the Biden administration involving how to deal with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, including a confrontation over mask mandates.

The DeSantis administration barred school districts from imposing mask mandates on students and staff despite support for them from the White House and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Florida’s Education Department withheld money from some districts that imposed mask mandates despite the ban — and the Biden administration provided funding to cover dollars that Florida withheld as a punishment.

Under the rescue plan, more than $7 billion in ARP ESSER funding was allocated to Florida to support students’ “health and safety and address their social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs in response to the covid-19 pandemic,” the letter said.

The federal department released the first two-thirds of each state’s allocation this past March and required each state to submit its plan for spending its ARP ESSER funds by June. Florida’s Education Department missed the deadline — and did not meet July and August submission timelines that federal officials expected after talking with the state agency, the department said.

The third part of the funding — totaling $2.3 billion — cannot be released until Florida provides a plan and the federal Education Department approves it. Every other state, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have submitted plans.

The letter noted that the state has drawn down more than $177 million for use at the state level but parents, teachers and superintendents have complained to federal officials that local school districts haven’t received any of the money.

“FDOE’s delay raises significant concerns because of the unnecessary uncertainty it is creating for school districts across the state and because it is hindering their ability to confidently plan for how to use these funds to address the needs of students,” the letter said.

It added that Florida’s “failure to meet its responsibilities is delaying the release of essential ARP ESSER resources that are needed by school districts and schools to address the needs of students most impacted by the pandemic.”

Asked why Florida has not submitted a plan, Florida Department of Education press secretary Brett Tubbs said in an email that the agency’s position is the same as the governor’s. The governor’s response is:

U.S. DOE’s website continues to show that Florida is #6 nationally in percentage of ESSER funds spent. Though Florida is a leader in this category, School Districts in Florida have still only spent 86.46% of their ESSER 1 funds. Nevertheless, the majority of districts’ ESSER 2 funds have been allocated to the districts at this point, with a minority of districts’ plans still being reviewed and an even smaller minority not yet submitted to the state.
It is important to note that ESSER 3 funds are supposed to last until September 2024.
Moreover, Governor DeSantis and Florida DOE have gone out of their way to ensure that districts were not held in harm’s way for the funding of students who did not attend school in person during the pandemic, and the value of that compassion and grace was in the billions.
If you are willing to identify any of the specific school districts that have complained, we would be happy to provide you the specifics for those districts. We will continue to ensure their needs are met, and at this time, no district has articulated a need for funding that cannot be met with currently available resources. Whenever this may change in the future, the state of Florida will coordinate with USDOE to ensure Florida students and educators have all the resources they need.

Here’s the federal Education Department’s letter to Florida: