Florida Politics

Parents who want recess say lawmakers are using kids as ‘pawns in a political game’

Passionate parents, like Kate Asturias of Miami and Angela Browning of Orlando, have been fighting for years to get guaranteed daily recess for their children and the more than 1.2 million other kids in Florida’s public elementary schools.

The two moms trekked to Tallahassee on Friday, for the countless time, hoping to see lawmakers finally make that happen. They left disappointed once again.

The favored proposal of “recess moms” and dads that unanimously passed the Senate a month ago (SB 78) wasn’t brought to the floor by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, before Friday’s session deadline — despite parents’ numerous emails and phone calls urging him to take up the bill, which had the votes to pass easily.

Instead, Corcoran prolonged a conclusion to the recess proposal by lumping it — with a never-before-seen exemption parents didn’t ask for — into a 278-page education budget bill released Friday evening, three days before lawmakers will vote Monday on an annual budget package they can’t change.

Filled with disappointment and anger, parents vented their frustration in social media groups this weekend — and some now have a message for their lawmakers: Don’t vote “yes” on this bill just so Florida’s kids can be assured recess.

“This is not just about recess anymore. This bill is a mishmash of some policies that have never even been vetted before,” Browning wrote Saturday night to parents in the “Recess for All Florida Students” group on Facebook. “It’s not how the process is supposed to work. The people, and those they elected to represent them, are supposed to be involved in the process. A conforming bill dropped after 4pm on the last day of session, with no amendments permitted and an up or down vote, is no way to govern.

“We can’t expect legislators to support it based solely on their support for recess,” she said.

Asturias, of the “Recess for Miami Students” group, noted that the new recess language is seven lines out of 6,848 in the bill, and “I understand.”

“It’s so disappointing that our kids were used in this way, and the message of recess and what it stood for was used ... as political cover,” she said. Parents “feel like recess was just kind of this very nice, sweet, pure movement — it was something for the kids — and they feel like it was just used in a mean way, a nasty way, as political leverage.”

Meanwhile, Corcoran claims he “saved” the recess proposal by adding it to the budget. (Daily school recess was not part of earlier budget conference talks, as it requires no spending and has no fiscal impact.)

Corcoran and other House Republican leaders suddenly this weekend started advocating for school recess through a coordinated social media campaign to promote the mammoth budget bill (HB 7069) — even though House leaders were silent or reluctant to discuss recess though almost all of session.

Several parents said on social media, and told the Herald/Times, they are glad their proposal wasn’t killed entirely on Friday. But they do not support the version Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and other House and Senate Republicans privately negotiated to put in HB 7069, which would exempt charter schools from having to provide 20 minutes of daily recess.

“Charter schools are very popular in Miami-Dade — and these parents have been side by side with us the whole time,” Asturias said. “They feel let down. ... At least in Miami, we never differentiated between what school you went to. We just all wanted recess.”

READ MORE: Read Browning’s full statement to fellow “recess moms.”

House Education Committee chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, told reporters Friday the exemption was added because he hadn’t really heard complaints about charter schools not offering recess. (Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores said a constituent of hers in the Keys did contact her to complain about such a situation.)

Bileca — who firmly opposed the daily mandate and was instrumental in stopping the House recess bill from advancing intact — said school districts “seemed to be where I heard the issue was,” not charter schools that are managed privately with public dollars.

He argued the language in HB 7069 was “substantially the same” as what lawmakers considered earlier in session. “So we responded to those voices and concerns,” Bileca said.

Many parents, however, said they see through Corcoran’s and House Republicans’ attempt to take credit for keeping the recess proposal in play.

Corcoran prematurely pointed a finger a week ago at Gov. Rick Scott, declaring Scott, not lawmakers, was “the problem” with the recess legislation — a comment Corcoran said Friday was now true. That acknowledged that HB 7069 is intended to tie Scott’s hands, although Corcoran denies it is political strategy.

“Placing recess in the budget puts him [Scott] in the position of approving things he doesn’t like, or killing the recess mandate,” Jacksonville parent Elizabeth Ross wrote to a Duval County recess group. “Essentially, the children of Florida are being used as pawns in a political game.”

Through their social media campaign, Corcoran and House Republicans are aggressively promoting HB 7069 — including its recess provision — before Monday’s up-or-down vote on the budget. (Promotional materials were first distributed by Corcoran’s office before the compromise bill was officially and publicly agreed to Friday evening.)

“The @MyFLHouse cares about kids being kids,” Corcoran tweeted Saturday evening, while sharing an image that falsely advertises the bill as providing “recess for all kids.” Under the bill’s exemption, charter schools would not have to provide recess if they didn’t want to, and the provision affects only elementary school children.

Like parents, the lawmakers sponsoring the original recess bills — Flores and Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia — also didn’t seek the charter exemption, which first surfaced in the budget bill. Both say they were in the dark about it.

“I did not know anything about the final language. I believe all kids need recess,” Plasencia said Sunday.

In comments to the Herald/Times, Browning said Sunday: “I am heartbroken that the recess language left charter kids behind and I’m upset that recess is being used to entice people to vote for things and a process that they object to.”

“This was never about politics; it was only about the kids,” she added. “I’m not telling anyone to vote one way or the other, but I am telling them that I understand that Monday’s vote is about more than recess.”

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