Florida Politics

House leaders won’t say if they’ll act on school recess. Parents grow impatient.

Kindergartners make plea for recess

Kindergartners at Miami Gardens Elementary School seem to have all the facts down about the benefits recess can bring. These energetic 5 and 6-year-olds feel the need for some sunshine and fresh air.
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Kindergartners at Miami Gardens Elementary School seem to have all the facts down about the benefits recess can bring. These energetic 5 and 6-year-olds feel the need for some sunshine and fresh air.

All that Florida parents want is guaranteed daily recess for their elementary school children. Just 20 minutes a day to allow for a brain break and some playtime.

But for the second consecutive year, that relatively simple request seems increasingly in jeopardy — despite overwhelming public and legislative support — thanks to obstruction by a few influential lawmakers in the Florida House.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, won’t have a conversation about school recess, and his top lieutenants offer only deflection when asked what the House will do.

Parents want a vote. In the two weeks since the state Senate unanimously passed its bill to require daily recess in public elementary schools, parents have mobilized, calling for SB 78 to be brought to the House floor.

“The PEOPLE have spoken and they want this bill!” Orlando “recess mom” Amy Narvaez wrote in an email to House leadership earlier this month that was obtained through a public records request.

The Senate bill is the one Floridians want to see become law, and ... anything less is a failure to properly represent the people of our state and our children.

Duval County parent Angela Copeland, in email to House leaders

But despite the public outcry, House leaders have shown no inclination to act.

Rules chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said last week that he was unaware of any conversations about considering the Senate bill, “but that’s certainly a possibility.”

Corcoran, despite recently reaffirming his support for daily recess, has refused repeated requests from the Herald/Times in the past week to discuss whether he’d hear the Senate bill. His office also did not respond to written questions by Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, Miami Republican and House Education Committee chairman Michael Bileca — the one lawmaker who publicly opposes the daily recess mandate — continues to be instrumental in thwarting House consideration of the original measure, which last year passed nearly unanimously with only Bileca and Corcoran opposed.

Bileca maintains that he’s been “very transparent on how I feel about the recess bill.” However, he has declined to say whether he influenced changes that watered down the House proposal last month or whether he would endorse a decision by Corcoran to now take up the Senate bill instead.

“If you look at the record of creating flexibility for schools and not layering additional mandates on the districts, the bills coming out of the Education Committee have all reflected that philosophy,” Bileca told reporters last week.

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

Parents are increasingly puzzled and frustrated by the House’s inaction on a measure that has had such broad support in contrast to the more complicated and divisive proposals lawmakers typically face.

Several House members told the Herald/Times this week that they want the Senate bill to get a floor vote and that they don’t think one member’s opposition should dictate a bill’s fate, let alone one this popular.

“This is not me speaking directly at anyone — but I just think our constituents send us up here for one reason: They send us up here to represent them,” said Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the Education Committee.

“We get here and we try to play bully against one another on legislation — that’s not a fair process,” added Jones, of West Park. “I think we all should be careful in how we are taking our personal views on something and saying that ‘because I don’t like it, we won’t hear it.’ ... Everyone should have the opportunity to vote on it, and from that, let the chips fall where they may.”

“Absolutely, no question about it — we should bring over the Senate bill and throw that up on the floor, vote on it and put an end to this issue,” said Boynton Beach Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, one of several Democrats who pulled their support for the House bill after it was significantly scaled back in its first committee.

The desire for mandating school recess every day originated from passionate moms and dads who implored their lawmakers to create a law last year, because they said local school boards weren’t listening to their pleas for a uniform standard.

Christie Bruner, a mother of three and a "recess mom" from St. Petersburg, explains why she's advocating for a statewide requirement for 20 minutes a day of elementary school recess.

The parents have been consistent and clear in what they want — 20 minutes of recess each day, separate from physical education — and they’ve faced very little resistance.

They abhor the changes made to the House bill (HB 67) last month — which now languishes in a committee that won’t meet again this session and which no longer has the full support of the lawmaker who sponsored it, Orlando Republican Rene Plasencia.

HB 67 previously was identical to the Senate bill, but it was drastically amended to strip out the daily requirement, allow schools to blend P.E. and recess time, and cut off guaranteed access to recess for more than 430,000 fourth- and fifth-graders.

Plasencia previously said those changes were necessary to get the proposal heard, but he enthusiastically told the Herald/Times on Tuesday: “We would love to hear the Senate bill and be able to vote on it. That is our goal.”

MORE: “ ‘Yes’ to daily school recess, Senate says. The House is another matter.”

“I know the Speaker has a lot of bills that we’re hearing, a lot of important bills — not to minimize recess — but there is a time and place for all of our bills over the length of our session,” Plasencia said. “It is something that we’re going to ask to get done.”

The Senate bill would appear to have the votes to easily pass the 120-member House: 56 House members signed on to co-sponsor Plasencia’s bill before it was changed (only 49 now do), and at least 17 more supported last year’s similar measure on the floor, according to a Herald/Times analysis.

We would love to hear the Senate bill and be able to vote on it. That is our goal.

Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando

After the House’s changes last month to its bill and the Senate’s unanimous endorsement of the original daily mandate, parents have directed their advocacy to Corcoran and Oliva — who have the decision-making power to take up the Senate bill in the House.

Phone call counts and emails to House Republican leaders in late March and early April — obtained by the Herald/Times through a public records request — offer a snapshot into Florida parents’ growing frustration.

In a two-week span, Corcoran and Oliva received more than 50 emails, and Corcoran’s office got about two dozen phone calls — all voicing support for the Senate version.

“The Senate bill is the one Floridians want to see become law, and ... anything less is a failure to properly represent the people of our state and our children,” Duval County parent Angela Copeland wrote to Oliva. “I and many others do not support HB 67! It does a serious disservice to Florida’s children!”

Oliva said he was aware of the parents’ pleas to him and Corcoran, and he called their advocacy “great.”

“It seems far less by design than other times,” Oliva said. “Usually when we get bombarded by emails, it’s a particular group that has mobilized. This looks like a lot of moms that want to send us pictures of their kids and saying that they want to have recess.”

Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, the sponsor of the Senate bill, expressed some optimism Tuesday that the legislation might still become law this year.

“It’s a little disappointing that the House hasn’t heard this bill yet, but there’s still about two and a half weeks left in session, so I think there’s plenty of time for this issue to move forward and be resolved,” she said.

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