RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A debate over whether Governor Glenn Youngkin can withhold funding from school districts that refuse to comply with his executive order ending the statewide school mask mandate is underway.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Governor Youngkin said his order allows parents to opt-out of mask mandates without providing an excuse and that they’re considering tools to make sure that right is protected. However, as some school districts refuse to change their requirements, it’s still unclear exactly what tools are at his disposal.
Governor Youngkin has not specifically threatened to “defund schools” as some Democrats have asserted but Lt. Governor Winsome Earle-Sears suggested withholding funding as a possibility during a recent interview with Fox News.
“There are certain combinations of monies that we send to the state, to the local school boards and he could withhold some of that and he could possibly , if the law allows, even give the parents the ability to decide what schools the children should attend,” Earle-Sears said when asked how the state could force districts to comply.
If Youngkin does try to withhold funding, it would seemingly contradict what he said in an interview in November when he was asked if he would try to prohibit localities from keeping their own mask mandates.
“I won’t mandate masks but localities are going to have to make decisions the way the law works,” Youngkin said.
In a joint press conference on Monday, House and Senate Democrats said Youngkin’s order and any efforts to enforce it are illegal, as well as unsafe.
“If our professed goal is that we want to have academic excellence in schools…why we would deprive them of the funding needed to achieve that goal just blows my mind,” said Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), who is also a high school teacher.
“Continuing to politicize a deadly virus is irresponsible and immoral and it is time that we all become adults and do what is in the best interest of children,” said Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond).
In a statement, Youngkin’s spokesperson Macaulay Porter accused those Democrats of “divisive partisan politics.”
“Democrats willfully mischaracterized the Lieutenant Governor’s comments to the press and played politics in an effort to delegitimize the rights of parents,” Porter said. She didn’t immediately respond when asked to provide specifics about their enforcement plans and whether they are ruling out the option of withholding funding.
Regardless of Youngkin’s executive order, Democrats contend that a state law requires schools to follow CDC guidelines for in-person learning, including universal masking.
The impact of that legislation has been disputed by its Republican sponsor, physician and state Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), who said in an interview last week, “There is no mandate in there and I believe we are going to hear that from the attorney general and having the attorney general weigh in on that will redirect the power to the localities to make the decision without a threat of being sued by somebody.”
Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said Democrats have no plans to revisit the language of the law despite disagreement over its intent.
“I don’t think we need to clarify the language. The language is very clear,” McClellan said, adding that any attempt to withhold funding would likely result in a lawsuit.
Richmond Law Professor Jack Preis said the law may tie Youngkin’s hands, even if there is a gray area that could be examined in court.
“If there is ambiguity or silence in a statute, then the governor has limited authority to fill in those gaps but there are no gaps in that particular statute about whether or not a mask mandate is required,” Preis said.
“Generally speaking, anytime a school system or any other person in the commonwealth can point to a statute that authorizes their behavior, then the governor has no authority to withhold funding or punish that person in any other way,” he furthered.
Youngkin’s executive order is set to take effect at 12:00 a.m. on Monday, January 24, 2022. The order says it will remain in effect until amended or rescinded.