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Biden administration signals support for Valley schools defying Arizona's ban on mask mandates

President leads assault on Ducey's plan to reward school districts that shun COVID-19 mandates. Treasury Department questions governor's use of federal dollars.

PHOENIX — Editor's note: The above video aired during a previous broadcast.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's new plan to reward schools that shun COVID-19 mandates came under fire Wednesday from the Biden Administration, with the president leading the attack.

The focus was whether Ducey was spending federal money the way Congress had intended, to help schools protect students and staff from COVID-19. 

Here's what you need to know:

"A dangerous tone"

In a White House speech that appeared to have Ducey in mind, Biden criticized politicians "who are trying to turn public safety measures, that is children wearing masks in school, into political disputes for their own political gain. Some are even trying to take power away from local educators by banning masks in school. They're setting a dangerous tone." 

The Republican governor announced a $163 million grant program Tuesday that will provide aid to schools that steer clear of mask and vaccine mandates. A second Ducey program, with a $10 million price tag, would give parents $7,000 per child for education-related expenses, including tuition, if they want to leave a school with mandates.

Treasury Department is watching

After a letter from Democratic Congressman Greg Stanton of Phoenix questioned the legality of Ducey's spending, a spokesman for Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen issued a statement indicating the department was keeping an eye on Ducey's new programs:

“A primary purpose of the state and local funding in the American Rescue Plan is to support efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control has identified vaccines and masks as two of our best tools to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially in school settings. 

“No state should use federal funds to prevent or discourage schools from using evidence-based approaches to stopping the spread of COVID-19. Treasury is monitoring all proposed expenditures, and expects any state or local government that uses state and local funds in violation of the eligible uses to repay the misused funds to the federal government.”

Stanton told 12 News in an interview Wednesday, "This governor has moved from mismanagement of the COVID crisis to malfeasance."

The former Phoenix mayor said Congress had intended that the money Ducey was spending would be used by schools and cities to fight the coronavirus' spread.

"What the governor has chosen to do is try to use those resources for exactly the opposite purpose, to help subsidize the spread of COVID."

Ducey's response  

The governor's spokesman, C.J. Karamargin provided a one-sentence statement responding to a question about the legality of the use of federal dollars: "We're confident the program used to distribute these funds aligns with federal guidance."

Education secretary's warning 

Biden also announced he was directing U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to take legal action, if necessary, "against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators."

In a letter to Ducey on Wednesday, Cardona warned the Republican governor not to restrict Arizona school districts from approving policies to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. 

Arizona's new laws appear to "restrict" a school's ability to develop safety policies, Cardona wrote, and are "at odds" with the federal government's guidelines.

Cardona recognized the local school districts that have implemented mask mandates, ahead of a state ban that takes effect on Sept. 29.  

"The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction," Cardona wrote.

RELATED: Scottsdale Unified implements mask mandate despite protesters

Cardona sent similar letters to the Republican governors of Florida and Texas last week as part of a directive from President Biden to intervene in states that are preventing schools from instituting mask mandates.  

Cardona highlighted how Arizona's efforts to stop schools from requiring masks could contradict elements of the American Rescue Plan Act, which funneled billions of dollars to the nation's schools earlier this year. 

Arizona was allocated about $2.5 billion from the federal legislation to cover COVID-related expenses accrued during the pandemic. 

Cardona indicated Arizona's anti-mandate law could prohibit schools from creating a robust safety plan for returning to in-person instruction -- one of the requirements for getting ARP funds. 

"The Department will continue to closely review and monitor whether Arizona is meeting all of its Federal fiscal requirements," Cardona's letter stated. "It’s critical that we do everything in our power to provide a safe environment for our students and staff to thrive."

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, who has been at odds with Ducey's policies, thanked Cardona for his letter to the governor.

RELATED: Arizona schools suing state government over classroom mask mandate ban

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