A top Treasury Department official warned Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday that millions of dollars in federal aid may be in jeopardy because of two mask-shirking education programs in his state.
The department’s notice marks a new front in the Biden administration’s attempts to clamp down on Republican governors who have resisted public health guidelines for schools, now that more than 700,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 since the pandemic took hold last year.
“We are concerned that two recently created Arizona grant programs undermine evidence-based efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Adewale Adeyemo wrote in a letter to Ducey obtained by POLITICO.
Key context: In August, Ducey launched a $163 million federally-funded grant program for schools that stay open during the pandemic. But there was a catch. According to the governor’s office, money for qualifying schools was contingent on their compliance with a state law that outlaws mask mandates and vaccine requirements.
Ducey also launched a $10 million program that low-income families in the state could use to pay for private school tuition, online tutoring or child care. There were strings attached to that program, too. Ducey’s office said qualifying families needed to show their current school was quarantining students or “subjecting them to physical Covid-19 constraints” — including requiring masks or “providing preferential treatment to vaccinated students.”
“Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged — mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t,” Ducey said at the time. “These grants acknowledge efforts by schools and educators that are following state laws and keeping their classroom doors open for Arizona’s students.”
Ducey response: CJ Karamargin, a spokesperson for the governor, said Ducey’s administration was reviewing the letter and would respond.
“Following the challenges during the 2020 school year, everyone’s primary focus should be equipping families with the resources to get their kids caught up,” Karamargin said in an email. “That’s exactly what this program does — giving families in need the opportunity to access educational resources like tutoring, child care, transportation and more. It’s baffling anyone would disagree with this approach.”
Looking ahead: Arizona’s laws prohibiting mask and vaccine mandates are facing a high-profile court challenge. But the Treasury Department said the programs still aren’t allowed to tap federal aid.
“A program or service that imposes conditions on participation or acceptance of the service that would undermine efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19 or discourage compliance with evidence-based solutions for stopping the spread of Covid-19 is not a permissible use of [federal] funds,” Adeyemo wrote.
Ducey’s office now has 30 days to lay out how the state will “remediate the issues,” according to the letter, or face potential sanctions that include a loss of funding.