Florida Politics

Did Miami lawmaker intervene to dilute school recess bill? He won’t say.

Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, the current House Education Committee chairman, has long opposed a proposed state mandate that would require school districts to offer recess daily.
Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, the current House Education Committee chairman, has long opposed a proposed state mandate that would require school districts to offer recess daily. Tampa Bay Times

The only lawmaker on record still opposing state-required daily recess in Florida’s elementary schools wields a lot of power over education policy this session.

But Miami Republican and House education chairman Michael Bileca won’t say whether he intervened to water down this year’s recess bill to eliminate the daily requirement and cut off guaranteed recess from more than 430,000 fourth- and fifth-graders in Florida.

“I think I’ve made the thoughts that I’ve had on recess clear, so how they chose to change it is how they chose to change it to move things through,” Bileca told the Herald/Times.

MORE: “Parents want daily school recess. The Florida House won’t give them that.”

Although nearly half of House members co-sponsored this year’s bill (HB 67) that sought daily recess — indicating it had the support to pass the full House as-is — Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia said the scaled-back version that a House subcommittee approved Tuesday was necessary to “make sure we have a bill that we know will travel successfully through the House.”

When asked if he asked for the changes to Plasencia’s bill, Bileca said only: “I’ve been very open in terms of some of my concerns with the recess bill as this has gone through and put pressure on districts to address it at the district, which they’ve had an opportunity to do.”

Bileca was one of only two “no” votes when the recess proposal cleared the House last year, and his opposition didn’t diminish this session, unlike Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who had said he would support this year’s recess bill.

Bileca firmly disagrees that the Legislature should require school districts to provide recess; instead, he wants the districts to act on their own.

“My concern always has been — and you’ll see it through this whole legislative session — is to provide more flexibility and the opportunity for the districts operate without the state being as involved,” Bileca said. “You’ll see that as a current theme in what we’re doing and the legislation we’re doing; this runs counter to that, but it doesn’t mean that districts shouldn’t be addressing this and incorporating recess.”

Bileca said a lot of school districts have reacted to the potential legislative action and improved their own policies. “Really, as I’ve gone through districts and they’ve shown me their recess policies, they really have created a lot more transparency with what their policies are,” he said.

MORE: “Florida Legislature’s own research reveals disparities in school recess”

However, “recess moms” have told lawmakers that they’ve pleaded with their local school board members for years with little impact, and as of last school year, there were still wide disparities in which districts offered recess, how frequently and for how long.

Since the 2016 legislative session when the recess bill stalled in the Senate over one lawmaker’s opposition, only one county — Orange — amended its policy to require daily recess. Others, such as Miami-Dade, have made changes to encourage recess more days of the week but still don’t require it at all elementary schools every day.

“Recess moms” were baffled and angered by Tuesday’s vote in the House Pre-K-12 Innovation Subcommittee that diluted Plasencia’s bill, because they’ve fought to get 20 minutes of daily recess for all elementary schoolchildren.

Asked for a response to their complaints, Bileca said: “They should be putting the energy — which they have — at the districts, and you’re seeing a lot of meaningful change at the districts.”

The Senate’s school recess bill — SB 78, sponsored by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores — maintains the daily recess requirement. The full Senate will consider it on the floor Thursday, with a final vote next week.

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