State Politics

Can school kids go out and play? Florida will again consider mandatory recess

Kristen Bachmann, 6, swings on the equipment during recess at North Beach Elementary’s Jennifer Beth Turken Playground on Friday, March 18, 2016 at the Miami Beach school. Kristen and fellow second-graders in Jessica Jiminez’s class have two 20-minute recesses per week and a 30-minute PE class Monday through Friday. The school is at 4100 Prairie Ave.
Kristen Bachmann, 6, swings on the equipment during recess at North Beach Elementary’s Jennifer Beth Turken Playground on Friday, March 18, 2016 at the Miami Beach school. Kristen and fellow second-graders in Jessica Jiminez’s class have two 20-minute recesses per week and a 30-minute PE class Monday through Friday. The school is at 4100 Prairie Ave. mhalper@miamiherald.com

A popular, parent-backed proposal to require daily recess at all of Florida’s public elementary schools will be back before the Florida Legislature next spring.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, filed a bill on Tuesday that mirrors one that died in the spring — despite fervent support — when one key senator from Pasco County refused to hear it in committee.

The measure, SB 78 for the 2017 session, mandates local school boards offer 20 minutes per day of “supervised, safe and unstructured free-play recess” for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia, who led the effort last year, will again champion it in the House. He said he’s in the process of drafting his bill for 2017 and plans to file it soon.

Last session’s proposal was initiated by passionate parents from all across Florida — primarily self-described “recess moms” in Tampa and Orlando, as well as Miami-Dade — who pleaded and lobbied for their lawmakers’ support in the 2016 session.

Some school districts in Florida already offer forms of recess — Miami-Dade requires it at least twice a week — but some parents argue district policies don’t go far enough or aren’t always followed. They want a uniform standard statewide, citing the physical and mental benefits children gain from having time to simply play with other kids on the playground, which also affords them a break from increasingly rigorous study in the classroom.

A bill mandating daily recess overwhelmingly passed the House last spring, but it stalled in the Senate when then-education policy chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, wouldn’t take it up. He said repeatedly it was a “local issue” that county school boards, and not the state Legislature, should decide.

Other senators disagreed with Legg’s firm position to not even consider the bill, but late-session efforts by one senator to bypass him weren’t successful. Legg is no longer in the Legislature, having decided not to seek re-election after Senate districts were redrawn — so the recess measure will likely face an easier path in that chamber this upcoming session.

However, there’s one argument against the plan that lawmakers heard last session and will have to face again: Locally, school boards might have a challenge in finding time for recess in an already jam-packed school day.

“I think one of the things that this will allow us to do is to have a conversation as to, what does this average typical day of a student look like? Maybe there are some state-mandated issues that we need to re-evaluate,” Flores said. “I do think there’s time for this and I think when you speak anecdotally with teachers, they’ll tell you there is time for this. The proof is in the fact that several schools and districts already do it.”

She added: “Ideally you wouldn’t need a piece of legislation for this but we’re obviously at a point where school districts say they don’t have time or are using not having time as a crutch. We need to make this work.”

In the House, the only two to oppose the recess bill last session are now in key positions of power, where they can determine the fate of the measure next spring: Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, who will be chairman of the Education Committee.

But Plasencia said he’s “not concerned” and doesn’t foresee any problems.

“We had advocates reach out to the speaker over the summer; I don’t want to speak for him, but he seemed very favorable to it,” Plasencia said.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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