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Florida senators ditch proposal to weaken school recess

But a Senate panel moved forward with other measures to ease mandates on school districts.
 
State lawmakers removed a proposal to scale back mandatory elementary school recess laws during discussions about bills aimed at deregulating public education. [Times (2015]
State lawmakers removed a proposal to scale back mandatory elementary school recess laws during discussions about bills aimed at deregulating public education. [Times (2015]
Published Dec. 12, 2023|Updated Dec. 12, 2023

Florida elementary school students may not lose their daily recess break after all.

State Sen. Corey Simon on Tuesday removed the idea from his 52-page bill (SB 7004) aimed at deleting several regulations that he said make public schools less competitive with private education options.

The move was a reaction to strong pushback from parents who fought to get 20 minutes of unstructured play into law six years ago but otherwise largely supported the deregulation effort.

Simon, a Tallahassee Republican, said he had intended only to give schools more flexibility in how they allocate recess minutes, particularly on shortened class days, and not to remove recess. He pulled the section that would have altered the mandate as the bill and its companions (SB 7000, SB 7002) gained bipartisan approval from the Fiscal Policy Committee.

Angela Browning, one of the parents who led the push for recess in 2017, said separately from the meeting that “recess moms” statewide cheered the quick response to their concerns. Simon “has clearly heard us on this issue and we appreciate that authentic daily recess periods will continue for Florida’s elementary school students,” she said.

Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee, said he was happy with the bill and the removal of the recess language. He said students have asked him why the Senate would consider restricting recess.

“The kids are listening,” Torres said. “We as senators have got to listen to the students.”

Simon did not go as far in amending a testing portion of his bill, which has received criticism from former Gov. Jeb Bush and his education foundation. Bush wrote a column opposing Simon’s call to stop using state tests to determine whether students get promoted from third grade and graduate from high school. Both are key pieces of the accountability plan that Bush steered into law more than 20 years ago.

Representatives from several groups said that, while they back the deregulation effort, they wanted lawmakers to delete provisions they viewed as backtracking on academic accountability. They spoke on behalf of Bush’s foundation, the Florida Citizens Alliance and Moms for Liberty.

Simon said “nothing could be further from the truth” than suggestions the bill sought to lower standards. He said removing the third grade retention requirement would encourage teachers to focus on children’s reading needs earlier. Deleting the graduation test requirements would allow juniors and seniors to take courses other than reading remediation, he said.

“Let’s stop dancing behind the facade that (universities and employers) are looking at these 10th grade tests,” Simon said. The time has come, he argued, to “fix the system.”

The Fiscal Policy Committee supported the changes that Simon offered, along with amendments advanced by the sponsors of the other two related bills, as they sent the measures to the Senate floor for final consideration once session begins Jan. 9.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has made public school deregulation a priority for the 2024 session. She included the concept in the 2023 bill that expanded school vouchers, saying public education must remain a strong viable choice for Floridians.

The bills cover a variety of concepts, including the length of teacher contracts, the penalties for class size violations and the age at which teens may take the General Educational Development test to certify high school-level skills.

“To me, what I get from this is we’re shifting our trust back to educators,” said Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Tamarac, speaking about the bill rewriting teacher contract and evaluation rules. She called the measures “tremendous in helping us to move education forward.”

Speakers at the hearing offered their backing overall, while still suggesting areas that might be improved, such as how much student test scores will count in evaluating teachers.

School board members and superintendents from across the state applauded the attempt to strip away restrictions that have prevented districts from being innovative as families have been offered a growing number of education options, including charter schools and private school vouchers.

Hillsborough County School Board member Patti Rendon drove to Tallahassee to tell the senators how important the measures are, before heading back for Tuesday’s evening board meeting.

Lawmakers have acknowledged that, over time, efforts to push public schools to perform have in some cases stood in their way.

Chris Doolin, representing 37 small school districts, thanked the senators for acknowledging the need to support traditional public schools amid the growth in education choices.

The bills “refine changes that were well intended ... with flexibility where needed,” Doolin said.

Still a wild card in the debate is the Florida House, where one committee has had preliminary conversations about deregulation but has not released any bills.

“We’re still just at the beginning,” noted Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, the committee chairperson and sponsor of SB 7002.

Because the concept is a Senate priority, many observers said they expect the discussion to last until the end of the session.

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Spotlight on education

The public is invited to a community conversation about the future of Florida public schools on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the Tampa Theatre, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times. In the second installment of the Spotlight Tampa Bay series, Times journalists will moderate a discussion by experts, followed by a panel featuring students. Tickets are $20; $10 for students. Proceeds benefit the Times’ Journalism Fund. To purchase tickets, click here.