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Does Illinois law give the governor the vast legal authority needed to punish school districts as well as students if the boards that run them refuse his orders?

Recognizing when they were beat, school board members in Teutopolis recently threw in the towel and agreed to abide by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mask mandate that they had earlier rejected.

But, really, what choice did they have after Pritzker took their children hostage and vowed to punish them severely if board members did not cave in to his demands?

School athletes expressed dismay about losing another season of sports while all students were forced to contend with the state’s threatened refusal to recognize the classes they are taking and deny them credits necessary to be high school graduates.

From Day 1, Pritzker has played hardball when it comes to fighting the spread of the coronavirus. He has imposed an economic lockdown that devastated the state’s economy and ordered other restrictions on people’s daily life.

It seemed for a while that his actions, as well as the availability of vaccines, largely addressed the problem, allowing people to return to a more normal existence.

But failure proved to be just around the corner as variants of the original virus reared their ugly heads and caused a new round of infections.

Hence, Pritzker’s school mask mandate and the draconian penalties he’s vowed to impose on districts that do not acquiesce to his demands.

Unfortunately, Pritzker’s side of the argument is not as strong as he suggests. While Pritzker cited science and scientists to support his school mask mandate, other science and scientists assert that his action is unnecessary because less-intrusive preventive steps are at least as effective.

Eminent physicians from Johns Hopkins and Tufts have gone so far as to call the school mask mandate “child abuse” because of the documented damage it causes, particularly to the very young.

This week, there was another important question raised regarding the mask mandate.

This issue has nothing to do with the wisdom of the mask mandate. But in a nation that prides itself on the rule of law, it’s equally important.

Members of a state legislative committee unanimously asked Illinois State Board of Education officials where they get the legal authority to threaten school districts with dire sanctions if they reject the mask mandate.

“There is a concern that policy outside of rule may exist,” members of the General Assembly Joint Committee on Administrative Rules stated in a resolution.

In other words, what is the state’s legal authority to enforce its mask mandate?

To understand why that matters, it’s important to recognize how far Pritzker proposes to go to coerce school districts into compliance.

He’s threatening to strip them of recognition status that deprives them of public funding, prevents them from fielding sports teams and rejects academic credits students earn.

As far as threats go, Pritzker’s is first rate, a real attention-getter.

Entire graduating classes would be denied diplomas, sending them out into the world without an important credential or back to school for another year.

Does anyone with a brain think that, if push comes to shove, Pritzker would authorize such mean-spirited penalties across the board?

The punishment of schoolchildren for the dissenting positions of adult school board members is so far out of proportion that they are difficult to take seriously. Yet Pritzker’s power to make life miserable for those districts that cross him is immense.

That’s why his embrace of what amounts to a nuclear option is disturbing, whether it is well grounded in law or just an over-the-top threat made to get his way.

Obviously, Pritzker feels the mask mandate is important, so important that his means justify the ends. But he’s the governor, not the king, and it’s important to know just how far his invocation of emergency power and punishment go.

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